[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Post War Dreams

The historic victory for the Labour Party in the 1945 general election saw unprecedented scenes of jubilation. Even at the opening session of the House of Commons, the massed ranks of the Labour benches, to the horror of the Tories, celebrated the event by singing the Red Flag. There was tremendous optimism everywhere. For the working class, there was a deep yearning for change. Now, with a massive parliamentary majority, this appeared to be Labour’s “finest hour”.

However, Herbert Morrison, the new Leader of the House, ominously described himself as “mildly disturbed” by these events. It was a sign of things to come. “These youngsters still had to absorb the atmosphere of the House”, he said. “But I recognised that it was largely first-day spirits.” Despite Morrison’s concerns about “high spirits”, millions of workers now looked to the Labour government to satisfy their aspirations for socialist change. Reflecting these pressures, the 1944 TUC Congress adopted a radical programme for post-war reconstruction, which included the nationalisation of all basic industries. The Labour Party followed suit with its programme Let Us Face the Future, stating that the Party’s main aim was “the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth”.

Clearly, the deep-felt longing of the working class, after years of bitter and bloody war, harsh poverty and mass unemployment, was for an end to capitalism and the establishment of a socialist Britain. And this is what Labour had promised. That was the reason why the Labour leaders were thrust into power, literally by the scruff of the neck, on a tidal wave of working-class hope. At long last, everything now seemed possible.

Unlike its predecessors, the new Labour government was freed from the difficulties of 1924 and 1929-31. The Labour government had come to power in entirely different circumstances. Far from being a “government of crisis”, reliant on Liberal support, Labour had a crushing majority with which to act. Rather than facing a world slump as in 1929, the government was staring at the beginnings of a world economic upswing; rather than mass unemployment, the post war boom was creating full employment; rather than counter-reforms, radical reforms were on the order of the day. The Labour government quickly set about the task of reconstruction and overcoming the shortages arising from the war years. New radical policies were introduced, such as the creation of the Welfare State, a key component being the National Health Service, with free health care at the point of use. This was followed by the public ownership of the Bank of England, the coal industry, railways, road haulage, electricity, gas, and the steel industry. In addition, to the delight of the trade unions, one of Labour’s first acts was the repeal of the hated Trades Dispute Act of 1927, introduced after the defeat of the General Strike. As a consequence, the civil service unions were now able to affiliate to the TUC, and the Labour Party received a big boost to its finances when “contracting out” from the political levy was reintroduced.

At long last, for the majority of the population, a Labour government seemed to be taking bold steps in the direction of socialism, which gave rise to widespread enthusiasm. For the first time, radical measures were being pushed through Parliament in the interests of ordinary working people. Labour was carrying out its programme!

Nevertheless, despite the promising start, the Labour government still attempted to work within the confines of capitalism. They had the illusion that socialism could be introduced bit-by-bit, gradually and slowly, as the Fabians had preached. Above all, the government did not want to antagonise big business or the bankers. Labour’s nationalisation programme, instead of taking over the “commanding heights”, took over the unprofitable or bankrupt sectors of the British economy, leaving the dominant profitable sectors in private hands.

By the time of the Second World War, the four major rail companies were in deep financial difficulties. On 1 January 1948, nationalisation day, the state took over a run-down rail system, saddled with a capital debt of almost £100 million, a massive amount at the time. Although a welcomed step, this policy, in effect, represented a form of “state capitalism”, where the state would bail out the private sector and play an auxiliary role in the capitalist economy. The former owners of the nationalised industries, who put up only token resistance, received massive over compensation for their troubles. The transport bosses, for instance, received £3.8 million per annum in compensation. The former coal owners got £164.7 million for the coalmines and £78.5 million in royalties. There was also additional compensation for other assets taken over by the state. The former owners were laughing all the way to the bank!

In this context, capitalist opposition to nationalisation was extremely mild indeed, and in complete contrast to the violent resistance expected before the war. The old bankrupt industries, which needed vast amounts of capital expenditure to bring them up to scratch, were handed over to the state without much fuss – and, of course, in return for massive compensation. Once modernised at state expense, the capitalists would then benefit through the provision of cheap coal, cheap electricity, cheap gas, and cheap transport. In reality, the initiative for the nationalisation of the coal industry and the railways did not come from the Labour government, as both industries had been previously taken into state control by the Tory-dominated Churchill Coalition government. The decision whether or not to hand them back to their former owners was settled by a Royal Commission, in the case of coal by Sir Charles Reid of the Fife Coal Company, who headed the Commission. These people had a head for business, and were prepared to reluctantly accept nationalisation on their (very profitable) terms!

So, despite its radical programme, the Attlee government continued to operate as before on the basis of capitalism. With roughly 20 per cent of the economy in state hands, and 80 per cent in the private sector, it was inevitable that the latter would dictate to the former. In the stark words of Morrison to King George VI: “During the Coalition, the Labour members had learnt a great deal from the Conservatives in how to govern.” In effect, they had absorbed “the atmosphere of the House”.

Gradual Approach

This summed up the whole pragmatic approach of the Labour leaders. For them, socialism, which was a grand idea, was only possible in the dim and distant future after a very long period of transition. Unlike the “utopians” who demanded wholesale change, they were “realistic” people who lived in the here and now. They believed that gradually, over many years, maybe many decades, capitalism would be slowly and peacefully transformed into socialism. They were typical petty-bourgeois Fabians, completely blinded to the realities of class society.

Nationalisation or public ownership had long been the aspiration of the organised labour movement. It was the means by which socialism would supersede capitalism. Ever since 1919, the Miners’ Federation had demanded nationalisation of the mines under workers’ control. However, by 1947, government consultations with the TUC and the miners’ union resulted not in the nationalisation dreamed of by the socialist pioneers, but state ownership under the control of bureaucratic unelected management boards at regional and national level. These governing boards were staffed not with ordinary workers, but with former managers, ex-generals, top civil servants and a sprinkling of right-wing trade union officials. In the contemptuous words of the former “Left” Stafford Cripps: “workers simply did not have the necessary skills to participate in management.”[1] Apparently they were too ignorant and uneducated to understand the “divine rights of management”. For Cripps, management would have to be left to the pampered bureaucrats of the Establishment and their friends in the capitalist boardrooms, the traditional “Captains of Industry”, who had the necessary acumen. Manny Shinwell, the government minister, noted not surprisingly, that many of his officials at the Ministry of Fuel and Power were “apathetic or antagonistic to nationalisation”. But nothing was done about it. They all carried on as respectable statesmen and women, careful not to challenge the real power in society, the giant monopolies and their millionaire owners.

Sir Walter Citrine, who had already been knighted by the National government, was now granted a peerage, and brought onto a board of nationalised industry. Eddy Edwards, the miners’ national secretary, went on to the National Coal Board, swapping his cloth cap for a bowler hat. The same was true of all the other management boards. In other words, this was not workers’ control or management – far from it – but a bureaucratic management, that mirrored the capitalist managerial elite, and utterly divorced from working people on the shop floor. While the miners celebrated the nationalisation of their industry and the end of the dictatorial rule of the coal magnates, which represented a gigantic step forward, they were still forced to fight the bureaucrats running the National Coal Board.

At the same time, the former coalowners, such as Powell Dyffryn in South Wales invested their compensation in profitable oil shares, and still continued to supply the industry – on very favourable terms – with new mining equipment. And of course, the profitable distribution of coal still remained in private hands. Meanwhile, the nationalised industries were saddled with colossal debts and massive interest charges, mainly acquired through the borrowing needed to modernise out-dated plant and machinery.

As expected, Clement Attlee brought a number of trade union leaders and union-sponsored MPs into the government: Nye Bevan at Health, Ellen Wilkinson at Education, Isaacs, chairman of the TUC, as Minister of Labour, and finally, Ernest Bevin as Foreign secretary. Throughout these post-war years there was very close collaboration between the trade union leaders and the government, which leaned heavily upon the former to maintain “industrial peace” and guarantee production. “Communist” trade union officials such as Arthur Horner continued to play second fiddle in this drive for increased coal production, just as they had done during the war.

Horner, the newly-elected general secretary of the NUM, in fact headed a £20,000 union campaign to increase coal production. “For the first time in the history of the trade union movement in this country”, stated Horner, “the miners’ union assumed the responsibility of actively assisting in the efforts to increase coal output.” In the words of Harry Pollitt: “The battle for production… must not be confined to the nationalised industries. The unions should demand that joint production machinery – national, regional, local and factory – should be set up in all industries without delay.” Incredibly, the stance the CP leaders were little different from Mondism and right-wing reformism. But with full employment, the workers were not content to wait patiently for “jam tomorrow”, and began to push for a bigger share of the cake that they produced.

As soon as Labour came to power, the Attlee government was faced with a continuing ten-week old national dock strike over revised wage rates. Employers at the Surrey Docks in London had already suspended 1,500 workers for working to rule. As expected, this provoked further unofficial action. The Churchill government had already used troops against the strike in Glasgow, Grimsby and Swansea. He then ordered 600 troops on standby to unload strike-bound ships at the Surrey Docks. Now, five days after the general election, the new Labour government ordered the troops to unload the cargoes at Surrey. This use of troops to break the strike by a Labour government came as a shock, and led to the growth of unofficial committees on the docks across the country.

Another unofficial dock strike took place in the autumn, involving 43,000 strikers at its height. This second strike resulted from widespread discontent over wages, conditions and, in particular, grievances against the TGWU officialdom. Arthur Deakin, who took over from Bevin, continued to rule the union with a rod of iron. The union bureaucracy treated the rank and file with complete contempt, and blocked official strike action at every turn. “Settlements were made, usually most inadequate, without any reference back to the membership”, stated Jack Jones. “Although numerous agreements left a lot to be desired, if unofficial strikes took place the local union officials were simply told: ‘Get those men back to work!’ I knew we would never build strong unions while such attitudes prevailed.”[2] This approach resulted in widespread resentment and even outright hostility towards the union officials. Again, 21,000 troops were used to break the ten-week old strike. By November, the workers decided to return to work with promises of an official investigation to look into their grievances.

Unlike the interwar period, the situation after 1945 saw a considerable expansion of world trade and was accompanied by full employment in the advanced capitalist countries. Under these conditions, even if the employers wanted to, it was impossible to return to the old pre-war casual labour system. The dockers were in a strong position at last to improve their terms and conditions, and the employers were forced to recognise this new balance of forces. The Foster Committee made recommendations on decasualisation and the Labour government introduced the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Scheme in 1947. Following on from the wartime regulation of the docks, the bosses had no alternative but to accept the establishment of such a Dock Labour Scheme. This, in turn, set up a Dock Labour Board made up of employers and union representatives to administer the scheme. While employers continued to hire workers on the same basis, those workers not hired received full pay from the Board. By this means, however, the government side-stepped the question of nationalisation of the profitable dock industry. Furthermore, the scheme did not cover all dockers, especially those in the very small ports. In the future, this was to become a major issue as the numbers of non-registered dockers grew with the new containerisation and mechanisation of the industry.

National Debts

The World War had transformed British capitalism from a major international creditor into a major debtor. Overseas assets of £1.2 billion had been sold off and exports were down to a third of their pre-war level. On the basis of the Bretton Woods agreement, American imperialism granted Britain a loan of $3.75 billion, which helped bridge the balance of payments deficit with the United States. While the Labour government had carried through certain radical measures, under pressure from the working class, it also continued to carry through policies, under pressure from big business, congenial to British capitalism.

For instance, the 1947 fuel crisis pushed the Labour government to introduce a number of austerity measures. The sterling crisis that ensued forced the Chancellor Hugh Dalton to abandon the convertibility of sterling. By February 1948, Attlee presented a statement to Parliament on “Personal Incomes, Costs and Prices”, and further pressure was put on organised labour to desist from any form of militancy. The Ministry of Labour had persuaded the TUC, under the prodding of Ernest Bevin, to allow the continued operation of wartime Order 1305, which declared strikes illegal and enforced arbitration. Scandalously, this legislation was to be later used to arrest and try seven unofficial dockworkers’ leaders. The TUC leaders also agreed that the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act (1942) would not be enforced for the time being. Despite growing industrial action on the buses and on the docks (which resulted in a state of emergency), the TUC General Council went along with the austerity, agreeing to examine “wage restraint” as an option. By 1949, the new Chancellor Stafford Cripps, now a firm supporter of capitalism, decided to devalue the pound and impose a wage freeze.

This caused dismay and uproar in the working class. But even prior to the freeze, there was continual industrial unrest – largely unofficial – throughout the four years of the Attlee government. The docks became a traditional centre of working-class unrest. Unofficial action on the docks occurred regularly each year from 1947 to 1951. These actions took place over various issues, including the victimisation of unofficial leaders by Arthur Deakin. Despite these disputes, and others in the Smithfield food market (1946), road transport (1947), and power stations (1949), the General Council fought desperately to hold the line.

Cripps’s devaluation and the effects of the Korean war rapidly pushed up the cost of living. With a boom in the economy, workers took action to improve their position and get a share of the increased profits. At the 1950 Easter conference of the shopworkers union, USDAW, delegates voted to oppose the wage freeze, while the AEU conference debated taking strike action. In June, 1,500 lorry drivers, members of the TGWU, at Smithfield market again came out on unofficial strike over wages. The government called in troops to clear meat supplies and the strikers were eventually persuaded to return to work. By the autumn, gasworkers struck over wages, but the government, fearing an escalation, decided not to use the army. Eventually, given the dead-lock, the government dispatched troops and used Order 1305 to force the workers back to work. On no less than fourteen separate occasions, between July 1945 and October 1951, the Labour government despatched troops to break strikes under the pretext of keeping “essential” supplies moving.

By this time, powerful pressures were mounting against the government’s wages policy and the trade union leaders were forced at last to give in to the mood. At the September TUC conference, a resolution was carried against the platform declaring there was “no basis for a restraint on wage applications.” Despite their best efforts, they could no longer hold the line. The Labour government, which was returned in the general election of February 1951 with a majority of only six seats, was also forced to accept the position or face a massive wave of unofficial strikes. The election result also showed the growing despondency among traditional Labour supporters, but especially the middle class, which was swinging behind the Tories. Their patience had begun to wear thin and their hopes of a socialist future had been undermined.

The Cold War

After the War, the United States bankrolled European capitalism as a bulwark against revolution. During 1946 and 1947, it made some $10.5 billion available in the form of Marshall Aid and long-term loans. In 1946 these dollars financed nearly half of Europe’s imports from the United States, and considerably more in 1947. Once Western Europe was deemed secure, the American imperialists attempted to undermine the influence of the Soviet Union by extending the Marshall Plan into Eastern Europe. Such interference led to a sharp deterioration in relations between the powers. This marked the beginning of what was to become the “Cold War” – a period of intense political, diplomatic and military rivalry between the two super powers, the Soviet Union and US imperialism, on a world scale. In the final analysis, the conflict reflected the irreconcilable antagonism between the two social systems on which they rested – the Soviet Union was based upon state ownership, while imperialism rested upon private ownership. This rivalry set off an arms race between the super powers, that was to create a “nuclear balance of terror”. In Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill, a key spokesman for the Cold War, talked of the need to “roll back the frontiers of Communism”. Britain, although a nominal victor in the War, had emerged as a second-rate power next to the colossus of the United States and Russia. Accordingly, in recognition of this subordinate role, she had no alternative but to hitch her declining fortunes to American imperialism through a “special relationship”, namely the relationship between boss and employee. This relationship exists to the present-day, epitomised by the slavish dependency of Blair on the Bush administration.

This fundamental change in world relations gave rise to dramatic changes within the Labour movement in Britain. The leaders of the British Communist Party, which had become ultra-nationalist during the war, now followed new instructions from Moscow and turned against the Labour government. They opposed Marshall Aid and began to galvanise opposition to wage restraint in the trade unions.

Although extremely weak on the political front (they had won two Parliamentary seats in 1945), the Communist Party had a significant influence in a number of trade unions. They controlled, for instance, the Electrical Trades Union, the Foundry Workers, and the Fire Brigades Union. They dominated the Welsh and Scottish areas of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Arthur Horner was national secretary of the union after Eddy Edwards left to join the Coal Board. The CP also had a strong influence in the engineering union, especially in London, and by 1946, they had nine out of 34 members of the executive council of the Transport and General Workers Union. They also had a large presence nationally in the Trades Councils and were well placed throughout industry generally.

Since the War, the American CIA had financed the rebuilding of the trade union movement in Europe, ensuring the domination of the right wing. Now, in close collaboration with the CIA and Special Branch, the right-wing majority on the TUC General Council began to take action against communist influence in the unions. By October 1948, the witch-hunt was in full swing. The TUC issued a statement denouncing the Communist Party’s attempt to sabotage the European Recovery Programme, and was followed up by another statement, Defend Democracy, calling upon all unions to purge CP members from key positions and block them as delegates to union conferences. The General Council also threatened to disaffiliate Trades Councils that refused to adhere to this line. As Jack Jones, former general secretary of the TGWU explained:

“With the increasing tension between East and West he (Deakin) began to look on the union and the TUC as battlegrounds and he set out to bludgeon any opposition, whether from Labour’s left wing or from members of the Communist Party. He became highly suspicious of anything smelling of the Left. In my experience those who claimed that he suffered from a ‘reds under the beds’ complex were correct.”[3]

However, this outlook was not the isolated paranoid view of Arthur Deakin, but was shared by the right-wing majority of the TUC General Council. Some unions like the General and Municipal Workers already had rules banning communists from union office. Those under CP influence, such as the Fire Brigades’ Union, simply rejected the advice.

“The response of the FBU leadership”, records the official history of the union, “was that these publications had no relevance to the union and, as such, ‘witch-hunting’ could only weaken the working class.”[4]

But in terms of size, this was a small trade union. The biggest battle over this question took place in the TGWU.

A dockers’ lockout in Canada in June 1949 had attracted the support of British dockers. As expected, Deakin was furious at this unofficial action and came down hard. Six militants were hauled up in front of the executive committee.

“I shall never forget that morning at Transport House”, recalls the London dockers’ leader Jack Dash. “We sat there like prisoners of the Inquisition, the general secretary Arthur Deakin in the chair and facing us the paid and lay officials of the Docks’ Trade Group. We were questioned about our activities in the Canadian seamen’s struggle and the dockers’ lockout. Veiled remarks were made about our membership (supposed or actual) of the Communist Party; a heated debate took place between Ted Dickens, Harry Constable and the general secretary, with the general secretary blowing his top… Anyhow the result of the enquiry was that Harry Constable, Ted Dickens and Bert Saunders were expelled from the union; Ted Kirby, Vic Marney and I were suspended for two years from holding office even if elected.”[5]

Following this episode, Arthur Deakin persuaded the union’s Biennial Delegate Conference in July 1949 to bar CP members from holding union office. Originally, the TGWU had gone on record opposing the 1934 “Black Circular”, but now it was in the forefront of the anti-communist witch-hunt. Within six months, nine full-time officials were sacked, including Bert Papworth, who lost his position on the General Council. All lay officials were forced to sign a “declaration” before taking office. Incredibly, the left-wing Tribune newspaper gave support to this purge:

“It is nonsense to denounce the TGWU’s ban on communist office-holders as ‘undemocratic’. The decision which, incidentally, also applies to members of the British Union of Fascists, was taken by more than two-thirds of the conference delegates.”[6]

However, this mealy-mouthed justification for Deakin’s attacks did not protect Tribune. Predictably, within two years, Tribune supporters were themselves reeling under the hammer blows from a vicious witch-hunt within the Labour Party against the Bevanites, where Deakin was once again the main instigator.

Cold War

“I shared their view [of the active members] that the decision smelled of McCarthyism”, wrote Jack Jones. “Since a number of shop stewards in my district were communists I felt that the union could only be harmed by the decision. Some members did, in fact, leave the TGWU and join the ETU. Determined to be no party to victimisation, I managed to protect the shop stewards and they continued to function in my district.”[7]

It was not until twenty years later, in 1969, when Jack Jones became general secretary of the union, that this ban on CP members holding union office in the TGWU was finally rescinded. But in the meantime, the ban had resulted in the removal of many leading figures in the London Bus Section and provoked an upsurge of unofficial action. The union bureaucracy came down hard, and, after a series of skirmishes, the whole of the Dalston union committee and officers were debarred from office until the end of 1952/3. Although unofficial opposition to Deakin was successfully organised around the fortnightly Platform journal, it never succeeded in creating a large-scale opposition within the union. “This was due partly to the climate created by Deakinism...” explains Ken Fuller.[8] The right-wing bureaucracy, through control of the machine, maintained a vice-like grip on the union.

The Cold War witch-hunt took on international dimensions with the rise of McCarthyism in America. In October 1945, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was formed, composed of 70 million members in 71 countries. Within two years, the Cold War had split the federation wide apart. The initiative for this split was taken by the then President of the WFTU, none other than Arthur Deakin, who rested for support on the British TUC and the American CIO. Deakin denounced the WFTU at the 1948 TUC Congress as “nothing more than another platform and instrument for furtherance of Soviet policy”. The following January, the British, American and Dutch representatives walked out, and by the end of 1949 established the pro-Western International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

In Britain, unrest on the docks and on the railways set the scene for 1951. The new Labour Chancellor, the upwardly mobile Hugh Gaitskell, in the face of a new balance of payments crisis, again introduced austerity measures, reducing the NHS budget by £25 million. In the words of the historian Ralph Milliband, “the Budget served to crystallise an accumulation of discontent over the general drift of the government’s policy.” This provoked the resignations of Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman from the government, and created a spur for the development of a Bevanite opposition grouping within the Labour Party.

However, in the general election on 25 October 1951, the Labour Party was defeated – despite achieving its highest poll ever – with 13,948,605 votes or 48.8 percent of the total vote. The Conservatives, who formed the new government, secured their victory with only 13,717,538 votes or 48 percent of the vote, due to crooked parliamentary boundaries. A Tory government was returned to power with Churchill at its head.

Like the Catholic Church that could adapt from feudalism to capitalism, and later even reach an accommodation with the Stalinist regime in Poland, the trade union hierarchy immediately entered into “fraternal” relations with the new Tory government. This subservient class collaboration coloured British trade unionism for the following decade. It was a continuation of a policy that had emerged from the defeat of 1926. The long economic upswing throughout the 1950s served to underpin this close “co-operation” between master and ever-so-humble servant. It also served to preserve the domination of the right wing within the leadership of the British trade unions. As long as these favourable economic conditions prevailed, and there was relative social peace, there would be no serious challenge to this consensus.


[1] Quoted in Milliband, op. cit, p.289

[2] Jack Jones, op. cit, p.142

[3] Ibid, p.132

[4] Forged in Fire, p.198

[5] Jack Dash, Good Morning Brothers!, pp.66-7

[6] Tribune, 15 July 1949

[7] Jones, op. cit, p.133

[8] Fuller, op. cit.