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Colin Barker

The British Labour Movement

Aspects of Current Experience

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28,Spring 1967, pp.13-21.
Reprinted in International Socialism (1st series), No.61, June 1973, pp.40-48.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The entire pattern of the class struggle in post-war capitalist Britain has been in process of change for some time. A number of inter-related economic, political and social changes have shifted the central areas of struggle to an extent that is only partially clear even now. This article will examine a few of these changes and some of their political implications. The account given here is necessarily sketchy, and to some extent repeats the arguments put forward in Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards. Further discussion on the question by way of supplement, criticism or clarification will be very welcome.

1. The Change in Scale

The historical tendency of capitalism in Britain as elsewhere has been a continual concentration and centralisation of capital. This hardly requires detailing: what is important is that the typical and dominant capitalist enterprise today is quite unlike the owner-managed mill or factory that characterised the 19th century economy; today the typical unit is the huge corporate semi-empire, with establishments often scattered throughout Britain and overseas as well. Unilever is large even among the giants, but by no means untypical. The 1962 Annual Report, specially reprinted as a pamphlet, reports that the Boards of Unilever (one in Rotterdam, one in London) control ‘several hundred subsidiary companies engaged in their work in more than 50 countries, each of them ultimately answering to the parent companies, Unilever Ltd and Unilever NV.’ Capital employed more than doubled from 1949 to 1961, from £281 millions to £642 millions, while trading profits trebled, from £31.9 millions to £100.7 millions. [1]

The directors and top managers of these great concerns dominate the most profitable sectors in the economy, and typically record the highest growth rates. Inter-connected with each other in diverse ways, from joint directorships and common holdings in joint subsidiary companies or servicing agencies to inter-marriage and common school and club affiliations, those who control these companies effectively control the major decisions in our society.

The rise of oligopoly means that they play a large part in the determination of their own prices in the home economy, rather than having them determined for them by the free play of the market. But more than this, they over-flow and can to a degree ignore the boundaries of the traditional national state. They, and the international financial organisations with which they are intimately linked, are thus in a position to put enormous pressure on to any national government, particularly in a state like Britain which is heavily dependent on export and import trade and whose balance of payments is so fraught with problems. Their collective, if only semi-planned, control over the flow of goods, services and capital in the world market gives large business international powers inconceivable even in the 19th century. Then, paradoxically, the British government’s potential power over business was much greater than today.

These changes are familiar. In relation to the class struggle in Britain, however, what matters is that the British government is not the only, or even always the most important agency determining, directly or indirectly, what happens in Britain. This is clearest in relation to its social welfare policies: before the 1964 General Election Labour offered as one of its principal baits to the electorate the promise that if elected it would immediately increase and reorganise the State old-age pensions. In the event the pressure of international financial opinion, mediated largely through the City of London, made this impossible. The ‘pound sterling’ had to be given priority over reform at home, and the increases were delayed for six months to win the ‘confidence’ of the banking fraternity of London, Europe and the United States. So too with the ‘incomes policy,’ the freeze, the squeeze, and so forth. International business opinion sets close limits for any capitalist government. This is true anywhere, but is most acutely apparent in Britain.

It is for this reason, among others, that working-class reforms won through Parliament have declined in importance since the war. It is also an important factor in any explanation of the general decline of Parliament as an important decision-making centre in British political and economic life. For the pressures of international capitalism are but poorly mediated through the walls of the Palace of Westminster; rather they are felt immediately at the points of intersection between industry, finance and government, in the Cabinet, Whitehall, the new ‘planning’ bodies etc – anywhere, indeed, but in Parliament. Centrally important decisions are made without reference to the central governing institution of traditional bourgeois democratic theory and practice: the decision to manufacture the atomic bomb is a famous example, and even today knowledge of how the government made its decisions about the Suez campaign is kept a closely guarded secret. The magnitudes and alternative options involved in the new growth industry of ‘planning’ are rarely discussed, and never voted on. Governmental contempt for Parliament is plain: in late July 1966, for instance, the name of the new ‘ombudsman’ was announced before MPs had even had a chance to decide to have an ‘ombudsman’ at all. Gradually the Mother of Parliaments becomes more and more a mothers’ meeting. The MP today, socialist or otherwise, has never been so powerless; the ‘honest left-winger’ is all too often an isolated buffoon at national level, while locally his declining band of party activists seek to turn him into a social worker with connections. Such struggle as there is hardly touches him.

2. Decentralisation of Reform

What is of relevance here is that the forces of Parliamentary reform are almost spent. The Labour Party’s conversion, in theory as well as in practice, from a party of working-class reform to a party of ruling-class rationalisation is a part of this change. But the change does not by any means imply that there are no more reforms to be had, in the sense that workers in Britain are making no more material gains. What is happening, however, is that the old means of securing reforms are in decay, and new ones are taking their place.

The change is of profound importance for revolutionary socialist politics in Britain. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, the tradition of parliamentary reformism, embodied in the Labour Party from its inception, has been the great barrier to any significant growth of revolutionary politics in the working class. If, however, as we have suggested, there is a decline in parliamentary reform in practice, this cannot help but affect the hold of the theory of parliamentary reformism over British working-class politics. The beginnings of the change are already discernible, even if they are not as yet fully articulated. Immediately, one of the effects of the decline of Parliamentary reformism has been an overall decline in working-class politics of any kind.

The typical 19th century capitalist in Britain was so small and relatively independent that reforms had to be imposed on him from above, through the government. The degree of competition in the market and the small size of his reserves made it imperative that if he granted a reduction in hours, or better working conditions, his competitors should do likewise. Reforms were thus won indirectly. The competition of the Tory and Liberal (and later the Labour) Parties for working-class votes, in the context of an expanding capitalist economy, ensured a relatively steady flow of reforms of various kinds, largely won through national political institutions. The high point came in the years 1905-1913.

Today however the situation is different. Instead of paying out for their reforms through indirect political bargaining by representatives only distantly connected with those for whom they bargained, the directors of the contemporary oligopolistic enterprise pay out directly to their own workers. In terms of ‘social welfare’ provision, this means that fringe benefits like company pension and sick-pay schemes, holiday benefits and so forth, granted directly by the company without the intermediation of the state (except in a supporting role through tax-concessions), have become increasingly important. State schemes have, by and large, just about managed to keep pace with the cost of living, and there has been a tendency to shift their cost increasingly on to those who use them in order to reduce the direct state contribution. Workers who wish their welfare benefits to match the rising standard of living must, however, look increasingly to winning increases at their own places of work. The process of reform has become partially decentralised. [2]

Fringe benefits are not evenly spread over the economy, and their incidence between industries varies quite widely. Thus in 1961-2 49.3 per cent of all employees in all manufacturing industries were covered by some kind of sick-pay scheme at work, but the variation between industries was considerable. At the top end were the chemical and food industries, with 84.2 and 71.7 per cent coverage respectively, while at the bottom end of the scale, metal manufacturing and leather recorded only 26.7 and 26.3 per cent coverage. [3] The most complete coverage has been for administrative and clerical employees, but manual workers are increasingly coming within the scope of the various private schemes. And there appears to be an increasing tendency for fringe benefits, originally a matter for unilateral settlement by employers, to come within the scope of collective bargaining. As for occupational pension schemes,

‘The great growth in coverage has occurred since the Second World War ... Growth has been associated inter alia with a change in character of the pension arrangements, and in the attitude of employers and employees thereto: occupational pensions developed as a form of employer-benevolence, a reward for the “faithful servants,” discretionary in character but difficult to dishonour in practice. They have evolved into a part of the contract of employment, a postponed wage- or salary-payment.’ [4]

The following table shows their spread since the war [5]:




Public services
and nationalised


























3. Wages

The decentralisation of bargaining over reforms is not confined to those matters coming under the traditional head of ‘social welfare’ but applies also – and even more importantly – to wages. On top of a national minimum rate, negotiated centrally in bargaining between national trade-union and national employers’ organisations, local bargaining has developed rapidly since the war. The product of this local bargaining is well-known as ‘wage drift.’ It has been steadily increasing in importance. Today national bargaining over wages sets the floor for the poorest firms and the most backward industries. For the more advanced sections, in many industries, it has become more and more a battle over unrealities. One estimate is that ‘supplementary payments’ (the difference between nationally negotiated wage rates and actual earnings, regardless of overtime) rose as a proportion of average earnings from 19 per cent in 1948 to 26 per cent in 1959 – by 1959, in other words, actual average earnings for a standard working week were about one-third higher than the standard rate, and the ratio was increasing. [6]

The importance of local wage-bargaining varies considerably between industries. In engineering and other metal-using and metal-manufacturing industries, and in building, local bargaining is of great importance, and it is now by no means uncommon for local bargaining in expanding firms to win workers more than national minimum-rate bargaining. In other industries, where organisation is less effective, where companies are less capital-intensive, less profitable and generally smaller, in declining industries, and where such institutions as payments-by-results systems do not provide the same negotiating opportunities, the proportion of earnings won through local negotiation is smaller. Within particular industries, too, there are wide differences in earnings: regional factors, together with variations in militancy and in opportunity, create a situation in which some engineering workers, for instance, probably earn almost twice the amount earned by other workers doing the same jobs.

And there are other industries, like the railways, with one employer controlling the wages throughout the organisation, in which local bargaining is of little direct importance in determining the level of earnings. [7] Even for these industries, however, local negotiations are of great indirect importance, since railway workers compare their earnings not with the minimum rates but with the actual earnings of those who operate a double-layered bargaining system. ‘Wage drift’ now leads the national wage-movement. [8]

The decentralisation of the whole process of bargaining and reform is of profound importance for the labour movement. It creates new problems, and opens up new possibilities. The rest of this article will deal with a few of these.

4. Rusty organisations

The traditional, official trade-union machinery has not adapted to the new situation in a way that enables it to exploit the new possibilities. At a time when national bargaining is becoming less important, the trade-union hierarchies still defend national bargaining as first priority.

The most notable example of this is the official union attitude towards the national engineering procedure, as set up in the notorious York Memorandum. This procedure, with its ‘provisions for the avoidance of disputes,’ was more or less forced on the unions in the engineering lockout of 1922. Union conference after union conference in the engineering industry has gone on record in opposition to this procedure, which is not only extremely tortuous and slow but also heavily biased in favour of the employers. Yet in practice union leaderships have done nothing to negotiate the abolition of this ‘procedure.’ Instead they have tended to defend it, by insisting that their members should use it rather than engage in ‘unconstitutional’ action – action in other words that falls outside the scope of a set of rules that has been repeatedly condemned at union conferences. At the shop-floor level, it is clear that the ‘procedural rules’ have largely fallen into desuetude and contempt. A.J. Scamp, the motor industry’s ‘trouble-shooter,’ for instance, reported recently that at Morris Motors, Cowley, 256 out of 297 stoppages of work had occurred even before the senior shop steward, let alone the local official, had had a chance to put the grievance into procedure. Scamp continues:

‘In the first half of 1966, again 128 stoppages out of 142 took place before the senior shop steward had had time to act on them, in spite of special efforts made by the company to provide facilities for the bringing in of senior shop stewards as soon as a problem was known to exist.’ [9]

The typical official union reaction has been to condemn this kind of development out of hand, without instead seeking its cause and cure in a rapid change in the old procedure.

Centralised, national bargaining was developed in a period when the unions were in a much weaker position than today. It was in the interwar years that it was finally and firmly established. Unemployment made it easy for employers to victimise militant trade unionists, and the absence of any real power in the workshops made workers rely on their full-time officials, who had the obvious advantage that they could not be easily victimised. In this situation, national bargaining made sense. It enabled the unions to resist or delay to some degree the employers’ pressure to reduce wage rates, by forcing the use of the rather cumbersome procedure. In a situation in which there was a close correspondence between national rates and actual earnings – i.e. in which ‘wage drift’ played a much less important role – it was important that the national rates be guarded carefully. Of course, as V.L. Allen has recently pointed out, the advantages in this arrangement did not only rest with the unions:

‘(The employers) were hampered in their attempts to reduce labour-costs in that they could not easily and promptly impose uniform wage reductions. But they could reduce their labour forces by shutting down part of their works or by imposing short-time working ... (Also) to some extent national negotiations enabled employers to keep rates lower than some of them could reasonably have afforded to pay.’ [10]

National bargaining also suited the employers in the interwar years since their main interest was in restrictive practices, market-sharing cartels and so forth. National bargaining without wage drift meant uniform wage costs and thus a reduction in the area of competition.

Today the situation is quite different, yet the trade-union leaderships still hang on to the empty forms of national bargaining, instead of ‘playing the market’ to the full now that it has turned so much to their members’ favour. It is left to other members of the unions to develop the struggle locally and to wring out the extra shillings that the employers can now be made to pay. [11]

Second, the basic unit on which the rest of the union hierarchy rises has tended to wither away. On the whole, the trade-union branch is in a state of decline, although there are variations in this development. One of the more optimistic assessments of attendance at branch meetings suggests that it varies between 3 and 15 per cent, with a heavy concentration in the region of 4-7 per cent. [12] The causes of the branch’s decline are several. First, with bargaining now taking place at the remote distance of the national bargaining session, or in the factories, the branch is only remotely involved in the central function of trade unionism. Second, the growth of both State social services and company-based fringe benefits has reduced the ‘friendly society’ function of the branch as a servicing agency for the individual member. Third, the continued growth of the great cities and the development of public and private forms of transport have created a situation in which workers often travel considerable distances to work. With union branches based on the worker’s place of residence rather than his place of work, it can often happen that he knows hardly anyone in his branch so that the branch declines as a centre of social activities. Also, branches contain members from many different workplaces, so that they are incapable of handling problems arising in any one factory. In one Ilford, Essex factory, for example, it was found that the 2,000 AEU members belonged to 35 different branches! This decline of the branch is a natural response to new circumstances, although there are variations in its extent. It may be that the decline has been greatest in the South of England, although this remains to be proved. [13]

It is on the basis of the branch that the union hierarchy rises, and the slow decay of the basic organisational unit, the branch, makes for a greater separation between leadership and rank and file. It is more difficult to apply ‘constitutional’ pressures on the union leaderships in this situation. Apathy towards the branch, itself a product of changes in capitalist society, helps to foster bureaucracy at the top. The whole organisational structure of British trade unionism no longer meets the needs of the membership.

5. State collaboration and bureaucratisation

At the 1966 Trades Union Congress in Blackpool, Victor Feather, Assistant General Secretary, stated:

‘The more integrated the economy becomes, the more integrated must the unions be.’

Full employment and the growth of capitalist ‘planning’ have led successive governments to seek the collaboration of the trade unions in the administration of British capitalism. As a process, its real origins may be seen in the Treasury Agreement of 1915, when the union leaders gave up the right to strike for the duration of the First World War. Only when the unions, by reason of the potential power given them by continuous full employment, have been in a position to threaten what the government has defined as the ‘national interest’ has the government been interested in seeking union collaboration. Thus, while the State was responsible for setting a quite elaborate conciliation machinery in the course of the First World War, in an attempt to prevent union militancy from restricting the patriotic war effort, governmental interest in the maintenance of ‘industrial harmony’ faded remarkably when unemployment again shot up at the end of the war:

‘The number of conciliation settlements under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour fell from 1,323 in 1919 to 167 in 1923. Conciliation appeared to be unnecessary when unions could be brought to heel so quickly and effectively by employers.’ [14]

With unemployment never much below one million in the inter-war years the government had little concern over union impact on the national interest until the advent of the Second World War. Then, suddenly, full employment returned, union membership rose, and the official attitude to trade unions altered:

‘In 1940 without a blush the government again acknowledged the importance of labour and union officials were drawn into the decision-making process of government. The scale of consultation was greater than it had ever been and occurred at each level in the hierarchy of operations from the Cabinet down.’ [15]

Since 1940, full and ‘over-full’ employment has been the rule, and union leaders have been drawn into government collaboration to an increasing extent, regardless of which Party happened to be in power.

The advent of ‘planning’ has only furthered the trend. Union leaders sit on many of the government’s committees, from NEDC and the Prices and Incomes Board to the Court of the Bank of England. The more that the government seeks to intervene in the economy, and particularly the more that interest in the control of labour develops, the further too will the collaboration of trade-union leaders increase. With no willingness to seek alternative solutions to the problems of capitalism, indeed, it is difficult to see what else they could do.

The fact that the trade-union leaders accept a collaborationist role from the government does not by any means increase their ability to get what they want. Indeed, this is very far from being the case. The gains are almost all on the government side; at best a ‘responsible’ posture on a Whitehall chair can delay a little or mildly compromise a government move, unless some credible threat of action by the mass memberships of the unions can be made. But collaboration rules this out. And the costs are considerable, to the mass memberships at least. In return for the right to rubber-stamp governmental decisions, the unions are required to accept limitations of their role in wage bargaining, legislation to diminish their independence and unemployment once every few years to ‘protect the pound.’

But whatever the losses, the great majority of the union leaderships – in practice if not always in public utterance – are committed to the continuance of this system. For a very long time they have been increasingly unwilling to contemplate any form of direct challenge to the government. The General Strike of 1926 was, for them, lesson enough. And so the reality of class struggle experienced daily by their members is transformed in their hands into cooperation and compromise with the powers-that-be in the interest of maintaining the status quo.

Their positions must be justified to their members. It must be understood that the heroic days of the past, while not to be sneered at, need no practical recall. After all:

‘This year we have made special efforts to include Lecturers from outside the Trade Union Movement ...

Mr Jukes, the recently appointed Director of the Engineering Employers’ Federation, who is a Barrister and has brought an entirely new approach to our relations with the Federation.

Mr Jack Scamp, GEC Management Expert, and the trouble-shooter of the motor industry ...

Mr Tom Byrne, Labour Attaché at the American Embassy, who was a member of the Teamsters’ Union ...

It is good that we should hear from such men as these. The days when workers and management were enemies are over. We have a common interest. The good of the country of Great Britain is of more importance than sectional interest ...’ [16]

To these policies various minorities of the rank and file of the unions offer sporadic, more or less articulate challenges, and the reaction from the top wavers between attempts on the one hand at increased internal discipline from the top and on the other half-hearted and shifting compromises between what their members want and what business, through its government, demands of them. The most obvious example of this was the TUC’s acceptance of a ‘wage-vetting’ role in the period before the ‘freeze.’ As the total freeze begins to come to an end, at the time of writing, the TUC is again seeking to persuade the government to let it play the same role again – a small concession to rank-and-file militancy, whereby instead of allowing the State to limit wages directly, the TUC will try to perform the job for them by persuading unions to reduce their demands. Alternatively, discipline can be increased. In specific instances a steward’s credentials can be and are withdrawn. But more generally the obvious solution is further bureaucratisation to reduce the degree or at least the visibility of rank-and-file opposition. One of the best ways is to increase the numbers of full-time officials, and to keep matters in their hands as far as possible; these men are dependent for their jobs and their careers on the top brass of the unions, and are thus more likely to be responsive to directives from head office than are lay members who are closer to the rank and file. In 1959, full-time officials numbered some 2,600. [17] Since then, and particularly since the advent of ‘planning,’ the drive to increase their numbers and influence has been greatly increased. In the ETU, 1965 was the year in which the EC was changed from a body of laymen to one of full-time officials, in which the EC’s term of office was extended from two to five years, in which the process of turning branch secretaries into full-time officials began, in which rank-and-file Area Committees were abolished and the credentials of stewards issued instead by the EC itself – in which, in short, the whole union structure was made more effective.’ [18]

In 1956 a similar idea was put forward at the National Committee of the AEU. Since then, a sub-committee of the EC has been studying a set of proposals for reorganisation put forward by the General Secretary, Jim Conway. These include merging of branches under full-time branch secretaries, full-time factory convenors, postal ballots, the check-off system for dues, official control over committees linking different factories in the same combine, payment to dues collectors and special examinations for all full-time officials. [19]

This tendency to greater bureaucratisation is in line with frequent official and semi-official calls to the unions to ‘control their members’ better. The purpose of the AEU proposals was made very clear:

‘It is argued that this kind of closely knit organisation will prevent any recurrence of the “workers’ trial” scandals which created such a stir during the general election campaign.’

Similarly, one of the central points in the Devlin Report on the docks was the demand that the T&GWU regain control of its members in dockland – not that the members should regain control of the T&GWU! The government is demanding that the unions act more ‘responsibly’ towards the national capitalist economy and become more like foremen and less like workers’ representatives. This of course requires that power be further centralised in the unions – significantly, one of the most common suggestions in evidence to the Royal Commission.

6. The Rank-and-File Response

To this situation the rank-and-file members of the unions have replied in various ways. Of these, by far the most important has been the growth and development of work-based rank-and-file representatives – shop stewards and similar lay representatives. Shop stewards first appeared in the engineering industry towards the end of the 19th century, as the scale of industry increased. Until the First World War, however, they were largely concerned with collecting dues and checking that members were paid up-to-date. They were confined to the skilled men. Within a year of the outbreak of the war, however, they had become prominent and had begun organising the semi-skilled. The official trade-union machines voluntarily gave up the right to strike, and as new problems appeared in the workshops in the shape of massive ‘dilution,’ job regrading, removal of ‘restrictive practices,’ extensions of overtime working and (later) mass call-ups, the stewards filled the void left by the full-time officials. With the postwar onset of mass unemployment the stewards’ movement collapsed, leaving a small Communist Party and employer-recognition of stewards as its only legacies. Throughout the twenties and into the thirties little was heard of shop stewards, but the rise in employment associated with the renewed military spending in the latter half of the thirties saw their return to prominence. Since then they have grown in number and importance.

The decentralisation of bargaining has played a key role in their latest rise. Today probably something like a half of all British manual workers are covered by some form of steward organisation, and these are typically the better-paid, more militant workers in the technologically more advanced industries. In some sections of industry and business, organised white-collar workers too are tending to develop a similar system of lay workplace representatives.

Today, in most factories, the shop steward is identified as the union, and workers pay far more attention to the election of stewards than they do to the election of branch and higher union officials. The intimacy of the daily association between workers and stewards ensures that the stewards reflect the current level of workers’ consciousness in particular factories more accurately than do the more remote national and even local full-time officials.

Even at the local level, the steward has several advantages over the branch official, from the point of view of working-class democracy, quite apart from the fact that his activities are of greater interest to the ordinary members. First, the steward is a worker like other workers, and directly responsible to a ‘constituency’ whose problems he fully shares. Second, the closeness of his relations with his members makes him much more responsive to membership feeling at any one time. Third, since he is usually elected on an annual basis and typically receives little (if anything) as a reward for office, he is easily removed – and a high proportion of stewards are in fact changed each year. Fourth, his constituency is normally of such a size that he can know all his members, and they can all know him. A multitude of informal workplace sanctions can thus be exercised to keep him more or less in line.

7. Unofficial strikes

The gulf between the official union machinery and the rank-and-file members is well expressed in the data on strikes. The proportion of strikes recognised by the unions as ‘official’ has been declining: in 1936-37, according to the Ministry of Labour, the unions recognised about one third (33 per cent) of strikes, while today the proportion is at least as low as one twentieth (5 per cent) and probably much lower. Indeed, not only are most strikes not recognised by the unions, but in many cases the union officials intervene actively to bring them to an end.

The pattern of strikes itself has also shifted. One of the factors lying behind this has been the growing integration by large-scale capital of its plants and processes. In the technologically advanced industries, this process of integration has created a situation in which a strike by quite a small number of workers can halt a fairly massive production process. The steel, chemical and motor industries provide the most obvious examples; motors are the most publicised, but in steel and chemicals a strike threat is probably equivalent in its effect on management to a two-hour walk-out at a BMC factory. A stoppage of work which holds up production on a large scale obviously hurts the employer a great deal more than does a stoppage whose immediate effects are limited to the work performed by the strikers themselves. Typically the industries with highly integrated production flows are also the industries with high capital-labour ratios: a strike means expensive capital equipment lying idle. The workers’ bargaining strength is enhanced. This change in bargaining strength, associated also of course with full employment, is illustrated by the statistics for strikes in Britain since the start of the First World War [20]:


Average no.
of stoppages
per year

Average no.
of workers


Average no.
of working
days lost


Average no.
of days
per worker
on strike































During the First World War, the special conditions of wartime full employment and the new strains placed on workshop practices by demands for ‘dilution’ and the like created a large strike movement that grew in intensity in the workshops as the war proceeded. After the war the employment level fell sharply, the number of strikes diminished but there was a series of large-scale defensive actions in long strikes that culminated in die General Strike and the miners’ strike of 1926. After that defeat the rate of striking declined completely during the worst of the Great Depression. Towards the end of the thirties, however, it began to pick up again as the employment position improved. In 1944 it topped the two-thousand mark (so much for making strikes illegal!) and after a brief fall in the period of the First Labour Government after the war it rose steadily. Today strikes are many, and they are short and effective. A large and unknown proportion of them are not recorded in the official statistics, because of the shortness of their duration. A.J. Scamp reports of the motor industry that of 445 stoppages that took place in five firms in the first half of 1966 more than two thirds lasted for short periods of up to four hours, and that more than 80 per cent did not exceed one working day in duration. [21] Excluding the figures for strikes in the mining industry (which vary widely because of that industry’s special problems) the official figures show a remarkably steady rise in the number of strikes since the mid-1950s. [22] Although by comparison with earlier periods the shortness of strikes makes the number of working days lost small, the number of separate stoppages is higher than it has ever been, and the number of workers involved in strikes today compares quite well with the number involved in the period of the great battles of the early 1920s.

Not only has the rate of striking changed its pattern, but also the issues over which strikes are fought have changed to some extent too. Turner notes that:

‘In the 20 years of high employment from 1940 the proportion of strikes about “wage questions other than demands for increases,” and (particularly) about “working arrangements, rules and discipline” rose remarkably: from one-third of all stoppages to three-quarters ... One could say that these disputes all involve attempts to submit managerial discretion and authority to agreed – or failing that, customary – rules: alternatively that they reflect an implicit pressure for more democracy and individual rights in industry.’ [23]

The TUC’s 1960 Report on Disputes and Workshop Representation similarly confirms that in the years 1958-59 the majority of strikes involved an issue of managerial authority. [24] In other! words, as well as the direct struggle over wages, there is a growing struggle in the workshops over the question, who is to control?

Only if this is understood can the large number of strikes in which workers engage with no hope of increasing their incomes – indeed, in the sure knowledge that they will lose money – make any sense at all. One of the crucial facts of capitalist production is that workers do not sell their labour, but their labour-power. In other words, a worker sells his ability to work, for a given time. But the contract of employment does not, and can not, specify how much work he will actually do, or under what conditions. And as workers have grown more and more self-confident, they have set up their own standards, so that today a great part of the struggle in the factories is over the question, whose idea of a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ is to prevail in practice? An American sociologist suggested that when a worker is hired he ‘sells his promise to obey commands.’ [25] But even this definition leaves a wide area unspecified. For whose commands are to be obeyed, and which ones are legitimate and which not? The question of who is to decide these matters, the worker or the employer, remains unsettled. In practice the relation of forces between the two sides in industry settle the question, but never with any degree of fixity. The frontier of control advances and retreats continually. This is one of the central points of conflict within all capitalist societies. The daily experience of factory work is the root of all trade-union militancy.

Within this perspective, it is easier to understand how many of the strikes that do involve money questions are really strikes over the question of control. If there is no immediate prospect of doing anything concrete to shatter the foundations of capitalist power as it impinges daily on workers’ experience, then at least the price for this alienated form of labour can be forced high. In many cases, indeed, the bargain may be conscious, as Goldthorpe has suggested is the case with Luton’s Vauxhall workers, who accept poor social relations and unpleasant conditions at work in return for a relatively high wage-packet that will at least buy a reasonable leisure life. [26]

As the urge to control has become more powerful, managements have sought a variety of ways, new and old, for fighting back. For management’s own power and status interests are threatened by an upsurge from the shop floor; a hierarchical, sometimes semi-paternalistic structure is constantly threatened, implicitly and explicitly, as the statistics of the labour office records continually assert themselves as ‘commodities with fists.’ From disciplinarian foremen and ‘personnel management’ to automated line-production and ‘measured daywork’ (and lately productivity agreements), the aim is the same, to reduce the continual threat of planlessness and unpredictability represented by the workers on the shop floor. In many plants, particularly where individual piece-work schemes are in operation, management has no real idea of its relative costs, because of the thousand and one ‘fiddles’ operated everywhere. There is a state of ‘near-anarchy’ in sections of the motor industry; there is a need for ‘more discipline’ everywhere. There are subterranean and subversive oppositional movements in every workplace in the country, organised and unorganised alike. They take their shape, typically, in organised form in shop stewards’ organisations, the natural expression of workers’ urges to control their own destinies.

8.’Do it yourself’

The new pattern of strikes reflects changes in the working class itself. Today workers are self-confident as probably never before; they are able to hurt the employers’ interests more than in any previous period; they fight over questions that, in earlier periods, they were prepared to let the bosses decide. And because the winning of better wages and conditions, ‘social welfare’ benefits and so forth has become decentralised in the great majority of private industries and in large sectors of public enterprise too (mining, electricity, gas, airways, etc), the struggle is now much more firmly in the hands of the rank-and-file workers themselves rather than being dependent on the initiatives of their national leaders and full-time officials. The growth of the stewards’ organisations is an expression of this change, even if its significance on a national level is small because of the current fragmentation of the movement.

The whole process has received a number of different names: ‘privatisation,’ ‘Americanisation of class relations,’ ‘depoliticisation,’ ‘bourgeoisification,’ ‘the growth of apathy,’ and so forth, each name seeking to summarise an aspect of the new pattern of class relations in Britain. But whatever title one gives to the process, one feature is of great political importance. There is a decline in interest in the whole traditional system of means for winning material reforms. One index of this is the low proportion of union members who vote in national trade-union elections. In the recent ballot for the important new AEU post of national organiser, for example, only four per cent of the membership bothered to vote. In national parliamentary elections, all the minority parties (with the exception of the Welsh Nationalists) have shown a more or less steady decline in their votes. Ward Labour Parties are similarly in decay, although there are (reportedly) occasional exceptions to this; overall, individual memberships of the Labour Party have fallen from 1,005,000 in 1953 to 816,765 – a fall of nearly 20 per cent in 12 years, which the return of a Labour Government has done nothing to halt.

In political terms, the growth of confidence in their own strength and the parallel decline in importance of nationally won reforms has meant for the working class a greatly reduced reliance on national leaders, be these national trade-union leaders or MPs, and a greater self-reliance. Far from leaving it to their national representatives to win things for them, the contemporary British working class wins things for itself. Reforms are no longer a matter for the top but for the bottom of the labour movement’s pyramidal structure. Today the degree of local militancy determines many workers’ standards of life far better than does national militancy.

Nonetheless, the picture is not all bright. Despite the undoubted growth of militancy, of self-reliance and willingness to fight over new issues in new ways, despite, and partly as a result of, the overall decline in traditional reformist practice, the contemporary working class suffers from a narrowness of vision and a lack of unity that can and does discourage many socialists. If the potential is to become reality, a number of problems must be overcome.

The greatest of these by far is the current fragmentation of action. Locally, the militancy of groups of workers in particular factories, building sites, docks, pits etc is admirable. But the bonds of solidarity between one group and another that would be a sign of a new movement among British workers, are largely absent. Even for the conventional trade-union struggle, without any overall political perspective, this is a serious weakness in contemporary conditions. As capital is more and more concentrated, and more and more integrated, the need for rank-and-file unity is vital since it is easy for the employers to play off one factory against another, to defeat a group of militants here by transferring work there, to other worse organised factories. Nor is isolation only between factories: there are also defeats within a particular shop or department through isolation from other parts of the establishment. At worst, groups of workers have even taken reprisals against others whose militancy caused them to be laid off. Those cases in which practical solidarity has been shown only throw the problem into clearer relief. The central reason for this fragmentation is clear: there is no clear perception of a common purpose that can unite workers outside the narrow and specific struggles that arise in their own workplaces nor any organisational structure. The horizons of the stewards’ organisations are narrow. The specific details of their day-to-day struggles provide no basis for a more generalised unity.

The current form of the struggle, bitty, uneven, narrow, selfish – the routine economic struggle of trade unionism in a period of continuing capitalist prosperity and growth – will never solve the problems posed in a fragmentary way every day of every worker’s life. The spontaneous upsurge of the masses is not with us; nor is the revolutionary party that can seize the moment given to it by that upsurge to conquer political power .for the class. For the moment we struggle still with the symptoms and hardly touch the causes, except in propaganda.

9. Prospects: revolutionary politics

By far the largest and most coherent body of political and industrial militants in Britain are to be found within the ranks of the Communist Party (and the ex-Communist Party). No revolutionary group can afford to ignore them. As well as being the only group of militants in the country who were able to lead significant national activities in or around industry, they won a position whereby to a considerable extent, despite their small numbers, they defined the terms of the debate over socialism among sections of the Labour Party and the unions. Until recently the Communist Party has been able to provide almost the sole operative definition of either militancy or left-wing politics in general.

But today the Party is in disarray, particularly in the industrial field. Where the Labour Party has never had any intimate connection with the industrial struggle, and has indeed tended to stress the separation between ‘trade unionism’ and ‘politics’ while yet developing, in voting terms at least, as the mass working-class party, the Communist Party has historically been divided between two principles. On the one hand the Party has, from its origins in the shop stewards’ movement in the First World War, emphasised rank-and-file industrial militancy. On the other hand has been the stress on loyalty to the shifting line from Moscow. The two aspects of the Party have corresponded in part to different sections of the membership: industrial militants on the one hand, and the Party intellectuals and leadership on the other.

The two aspects fused into that odd amalgam, British Stalinism. The Party held the loyalty and patterned the political thought and activity of more than a generation of British working-class militants. Nor was this influence confined to the Party members themselves, or the many who joined and left again, but also Stalinist conceptions of political struggle permeated broad sections of the Labour Left and defined the areas of debate and the climate of ‘left’ opinion.

The period of maximum Communist Party influence has passed, however, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the working-class, with full employment and the spread of decentralised bargaining, has become increasingly self-reliant. In consequence, the need to believe in a socialist paradise as a source of inspiration and strength is much less. The religious quality that characterised support for Russia has received heavy blows from Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin, from the East German and the Hungarian uprisings and so forth.

Added to this is the fact that the Communist world itself is now deeply divided. The days are gone for ever when Communism was one monolithic unity, headed by a universally accepted pope in the Kremlin. Today there is not one pope, but two, and they are in deep and public rivalry.

But for the industrial militants, perhaps the most important factor of all is the growing division between the rank and file and the full-time officials in the unions. This division has important implications for the Communist Party, which has many union officials within its ranks. For Party members and non-Party lefts alike, the Party has provided a career structure within certain unions, in line with its essentially reformist emphasis on getting ‘left’ candidates into office. Once in office, many of these ‘left’ officials have succumbed to the pressures of their positions and have lost the militancy that gave them their support while they were on the shop floor. A whole series of minor betrayals, failures to give adequate support, ineptitudes, petty bureaucratic attitudes and so forth have tended to embitter many of the Party’s loyal militants. But the Party is committed, to its current line on getting ‘left’ officials elected, and will defend its officials against criticism from dissatisfied rank-and-file militants.

Probably there is less disenchantment with the Party’s parliamentary politicking than with the union aspect, since the Party runs few candidates (and there are no Party MPs today) and anyway at present there is little in the way of general politics to make the question of parliamentarism very relevant to day-to-day issues. Nevertheless the Party’s vote in General Elections has been declining, along with other minority parties’. There is an undoubted tendency for support to wither among the Party’s few thousand industrial militants. The Party is less able than ever before to achieve the goals it sets: in the AEU presidential elections for instance, it cannot guarantee a significant proportion of the ‘left’ vote for its candidate, Hugh Scanlon, any more.

For revolutionaries, the most important thing of all is the relative demoralisation of the Party machine: not because of the process itself, but because of the effects of that demoralisation. The Party does not provide very much in the way of activity for its own militants. If anything, it has tended to seek to repress upsurges of militancy, which constantly threaten to evade Party control. Its politics are humdrum and semi-active at best. Today the industrial militants thus very often hold, in a sense, two separate membership cards: one that links them to the Communist Party, and the other that connects them to a nascent militant rank-and-file industrial movement. The latter is the card that is likely to matter most when choices have to be made. For those revolutionaries who seek to rediscover, in their theory and their activities, the core of that bright scarlet revolutionary thread linking them to Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and the rest of the revolutionary Marxist tradition, there can only be one realistic politics at present: the politics of the united front in industry. The possibility exists for work with Party members and sympathisers as never before, work that stresses the points of unity with them: currently opposition to incomes policy, opposition to legislation, defence of rank-and-file trade unionism, and so forth. This means often pushing Party members into activity that the Party itself fails to offer, but cannot oppose. The precise form that the activity takes will vary in every district and in every area of life, depending on the relation of forces at a given time.

What is important, in any case, is that there should be activity and activity that is geared to the movement as it is. For it is the unity between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice that lies at the heart of the Marxist tradition. In Connolly’s words, ‘The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce.’ At the same time, mindless adoption of ‘Bolshevik’ solutions that fitted a genuinely revolutionary situation would be fatal, not because of any desire of Marxists to avoid questions of the seizure of state power, but because we work with the movement as it is and not as it might be. The richest source for the development of Marxist theory is the experience of the working class; to impose grand ‘political’ conceptions on a movement that is fragmented and very narrow in its contemporary focus is both to miss the opportunity for the recreation of theory and also in practice to become isolated and sectarian. The rebuilding of a revolutionary party in Britain begins now with the materials to hand.



1. Unilever Ltd, The Anatomy of a Business, London 1962, pp.1-2.

2. See in particular R.M. Titmuss, Essays on ‘The Welfare State’, London 1958.

3. G.L. Reid and D.J. Robertson, Fringe Benefits, Labour Costs and Social Security, London, 1965, p.216.

4. Ibid., pp.169 and 171.

5. Ibid., Table 52, p.170.

6. L.A. Dicks-Mireaux and J.R. Shepherd, The Wage Structure and Some Implications for Incomes Policy, Economic Review, November 1962, p.42.

7. If the tendency towards ‘productivity bargaining’ continues this may become less true. It has been suggested, for instance, that the Southern Region railwaymen should have been paid additional bonuses for ‘greater productivity’ without reference to other railway workers. National Board Prices and Incomes, Report No.8, Pay and Conditions of British Railways Staff, Cmnd 2873, January 1966, para.74.

8. See for instance T. Cliff and C. Barker, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards, London 1966, pp.61-2, fn.5.

9. A.J. Scamp, Report on the activities of the Motor Industry Joint Industrial Council, London, November 1966, para.24.

10. V.L. Allen, Militant Trade Unionism, London 1966, p.39.

11. One notable exception to this general rule is the Draughtsmen’s and Allied Technicians’ Association (DATA), which is almost a model of what a union should be today. Partly because in the past the employers have resisted DATA nationally, but also for reasons of conscious policy, the union pursues an active policy of getting as much for its members as it can on a local basis, and then seeks to spread a gain made in one workplace across the rest of industry. Since all strikes are more or less automatically made official, the union has a very good record among militants for its democracy (and for its policy of paying full pay during disputes!) Some other white-collar unions approximate to this, but none with the aggressive practical militancy of DATA. Here the gap between officials and members is less than in other unions.

12. B.C. Roberts, Trade Union Government and Administration, London 1956, p.95.

13. It is asserted by W.E.J. McCarthy in his Royal Commission Research Paper, The Role of Shop Stewards in British Industrial Relations, London, August 1966.

14. V.L. Allen, Op. cit., p.50.

15. Ibid., p.51.

16. Jim Conway, General Secretary of the AEU, on the Shop Stewards’ Summer School, AEU Journal, September 1966.

17. H.A. Clegg, A.J. Killick and Rex Adams, Trade Union Officers, Oxford 1961.

18. ETU, Abridged Report of the Second Biennial Conference, London 1965.

19. The Sunday Times, 9 October 1966 and The Guardian, 10 October 1966. See also The Notebook, IS 27, Winter 1966-67.

20. Computed from Ministry of Labour, Evidence to the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, London 1966, Appendix XV, p.145.

21. A.J. Scamp, Op. cit., p.10.

22. H.A. Turner, The Trend of Strikes, Leeds 1963; a continuation of the figures up to the end of 1965 can be found in T. Cliff and C. Barker, Op. cit., p.81.

23. H.A. Turner, Op. cit., p.18.

24. TUC Report, 1960, pp.125-6.

25. John R Commons, The Legal Foundations of Capitalism, New York 1932, p284.

26. John H Goldthorpe, Attitudes and behaviour of car assembly workers, British Journal of Sociology, 17, 3, September 1966. Such a bargain depends for its stability on the continuance of that relatively high wage packet. Its actual instability – not noted by Goldthorpe – was sharply demonstrated in the sudden outburst of militancy in autumn 1966 in a factory always previously regarded as a ‘cabbage patch.’

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Last updated: 13.4.2008