Britain, 1974: Workers kick out Tory government

The news is full of the plans of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to hammer the public sector in the interests of the ruling class. But “the best laid schemes of mice and men, go often askew,” as Robbie Burns wrote. This is precisely what happened to Ted Heath's government.

Ted Heath’s plans went very askew in the early 1970s, and he had a Tory parliamentary majority that David Cameron can only dream of. The volatility of the world in 2010 means that this new government will be a government of crisis. Certainly the story of Ted Heath’s demise has a lot of lessons for trade unionists and socialists today.

The 1972 miners’ victory set the alarms ringing. The bosses were terrified of this example of industrial militancy. Heath made secret plans analysing industries, establishing a “Civil Contingencies Unit.” Trouble was brewing on the docks. The Tories wanted to scrap the National Dock Labour Scheme that guaranteed dockers’ jobs, but they backed off fearing that "union officials were having difficulty retaining control, in the face of increasing militancy at a local level".


The Tories’ hand was forced when two haulage firms, Heaton's and Craddock's took legal action against the Transport and General Workers’ Union (now part of Unite) for allowing unofficial action against their firms in protest against the use of containers. The courts ruled that the T&G was responsible for the unofficial action and fined it £5,000 for contempt after refusing to show up. The union faced a further fine of £50,000 and the threat of sequestration of assets under the new, hated Industrial Relations Act if they refused to lift the boycott. The courts had upped the ante, but instead of calling an all out strike, which would have had a massive echo from the members of the TGWU and from other workers as well, the leadership took the case to the TUC which they saw as a safer route.

"The union was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea", stated Jack Jones. "From the dockers there were increasing calls for a national strike; on the other hand the threat of sequestration (seizing union funds) posed a challenge to the very existence of the TGWU. Because of its size the TGWU was very vulnerable, but I was still convinced that a collective response by the whole trade union movement could defeat the challenge.”

Even Jack Jones, a very sincere genuine left winger, failed to fully understand the potential power of the TGWU and lacked confidence in the members. The T&G leaders were divided over the issue of the fines and eventually the decision to pay was passed by a wafer thin majority, including Jones. The movement from below was running up against prevarication from the leadership. Despite this the dockers continued to refuse to lift the boycott.

The cabinet met to review events and make their plans, fully aware of the support among the dockers for their shop stewards’ committee. They discussed a state of emergency, food rationing and requisitioning lorries; events were moving fast.

Midland Cold Storage Company got an injunction against picketing dockers. The news spread like wildfire in the London Docks. Five dockers were arrested and imprisoned in Pentonville Prison sparking a huge reaction; 44,000 dockers and 130,000 other workers walked out. Docks were brought to a complete standstill throughout the country. The movement against Heath’s anti-union laws spread like wildfire. The TUC were forced to call a one day general strike. This was a complete volte face for TUC General Secretary Vic Feather, who had earlier called the idea a complete fantasy.

One day general strike

The TUC put itself reluctantly at the head of the movement. The Tories had to back off or the situation would spiral out of control. Would the workers stop at a one day general strike? In panic the Official Solicitor (a hitherto unknown legal figure) was wheeled out to reinterpret the law. The dockers were released and the general strike called off. The ‘Times’ compared the Tory government to a “disordered slot-machine, which produced a succession of unforeseen results, mostly raspberry flavoured."

The Tories declared another state of emergency on July 28th when dockers struck again. The idea of using strikebreaking troops was mooted but as the Government Contingency Group explained: "If troops were used there is a real danger of sympathetic action by lorry drivers and others which would be more damaging than the present situation.” By the end of August the Tories were forced to accept a deal.

In December 750,000 workers struck against the Industrial Relations Act after the engineering union, the AUEW, was fined and then sequestrated £55,000 for refusing to allow a known scab and right wing “crusader for the freedom of the individual” to join the union.

A 13 week strike of building workers was successful in winning a significant pay rise, abolishing casual ’lump’ labour and strengthening the newly merged building workers’ union, UCATT. To cut across the radicalisation and end the mass flying pickets the Tories tried to make an example of them, framing stewards for intimidation, violence and conspiracy. Two dozen leading stewards in North Wales were arrested. The “Shrewsbury 24” trial was a political stitch-up to smash the militant mood of the workers.

"I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, just an ordinary criminal case, and I refute that with every fibre of my being…" stated one of the accused, Ricky Tomlinson. "I look forward to the day when the real culprits, the McAlpines, the Wimpeys, the Laings and the Bovis' and their political bodies are in the dock facing charge of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right – picketing”. Six were found guilty of unlawful assembly and three for affray -quashed on appeal. Three of the stewards were jailed and, scandalously, Des Warren and Tomlinson served out their terms under the Labour Government elected in 1974.

Almost 24 million days were lost in strikes in 1972 plus another 4 million in political strike action. Militancy was on the rise. and it was beginning to affect the Labour Party. Left groups emerged on the TUC General Council and Labour Party NEC simultaneously for the first time since the 1920s.


Seeking collaboration with the Tories, Vic Feather met secretly with Heath about the economic situation. Heath convinced Feather that he was “heading our way”. A TUC motion objecting to the talks was defeated by 21 votes to 9. Jack Jones agreed to go along with the talks. The left had no clear perspective and vacillated rather than mobilising the workers.

The Tories merely decided to face down the TUC; announcing that the Industrial Relations Act, pensions, rents and the EEC were for parliament to discuss. As Jack Jones explained; "In place of talks we had confrontation." The General Council was desperate for a deal: "The government must be given a chance to get off the hook," begged Len Murray, the new general secretary of the TUC. But the door of Number 10 merely slammed behind them.

Heath imposed "Phase One" of a statutory incomes policy at the end of 1972 followed by "Phase Two.” These were met with little resistance. After the battles of 1970-72 there was an ebb on the industrial front. The mass movement couldn’t go on forever without a clear alternative from the top.

This lull continued for most of 1973. Days lost through strikes fell sharply to just less than 8 million. But the number of shop stewards rose to 300,000 and trade union membership grew, especially among white collar workers. Confidence was high. With a general strike implicit in the situation as the Tories tried to face down the unions, Britain had entered a new period of volatility.

In late 1973 the Tories announced "Phase Three" of their incomes policy, a 7% wage norm – far below the inflation rate and therefore a significant cut in living standards.

Anger began to grow in the miners’ union, the NUM, where the left had gained ground and Mick McGahey, a leading member of the Communist Party, had been newly elected as vice-president. The Middle East oil crisis tipped the world economy into the first major slump since the 1930s strengthening the miners’ hands. A pay claim and overtime ban was introduced on 12 November. Heath called yet another state of emergency and then a three day working week “to save energy”. The street lights were cut off and TV shut down every night at 10.30 p.m. More than one million workers had been laid off work by mid-January. 81% of the miners voted to strike, far more than in 1972. The strike was called for 9 February 1974. Fearing humiliation as in 1972, Heath gambled by calling a general election days before the strike.

Who runs the country?

"Who runs the country? Parliament or the militants?" ran the tabloid headlines. But workers and sections of the middle class had taken enough and were looking to Labour. The party had shifted radically to the left on the wave of industrial struggle. The 1973 Labour Conference endorsed a programme including nationalisation of the top 25 companies. The right wing still controlled the manifesto and watered the programme down, but even then Labour promised to "bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families." Even the shadow Chancellor right-winger Dennis Healey, threatened to "squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked”.

The ruling class responded to these changes as Ian Gilmour explained:"… the Labour Party has become a threat to the constitution, both in Opposition and in government... Extremists have penetrated it at every level, and swung it violently to the Left. As (right wing Labour) Lord George-Brown said in April 1972, 'in the fifties and sixties the men at the head of the unions were genuine social democrats’… Now, I think today that the situation is different. The major unions are the subjects of a different kind of leadership, with a different outlook.…”

In the election the Tories were defeated, Labour won 301 seats; the Tories' 296. The Liberals had 14 seats, and theoretically the balance of power. Heath tried to cling on to power, meeting secretly with Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, to stitch up a coalition. This collapsed when Liberal HQ was inundated with 3,000 telegrams in protest. Heath was humiliated and defeated, so he resigned. The Times reported that "This has been an historic dispute. It is the first time that an industrial stoppage has provoked a general election and indirectly brought about the downfall of a government".

The miners returned to work with major concessions. The same day, Margaret Thatcher became the new leader of the Tory Party. Heath’s demise was a major turning point in British history – the working class was confident and the Tory party was going to be forced to reinvent itself. The ruling class had been badly burnt.

Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)