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

Preparing the Class War

The decade of the Seventies had witnessed a prodigious growth in the power and prestige of the trade union movement in Britain. Before the First World War, Lenin once remarked that the trade unions could never hope to encompass more than one third of the working class under capitalism. Yet in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher first came to power, trade union membership reached an historic highpoint of 55 per cent of the workforce, some 13.3 million people. These organisations embraced millions of workers, not least the growing army of white-collar workers, increasingly proletarianised by the changing nature of work.

However, within a decade and a half, the juggernaut of Thatcherism had brought the unions to their knees. Overall numbers in the trade unions had declined to nine million, of which little more than seven million were affiliated to the TUC. The closed shop had been outlawed and the basic right to strike had been severely curtailed. The large elements of workers’ control in the factories and workplaces – control of hiring and firing, the speed of the job, and other restrictions on the prerogatives of management – were completely undermined by the employers’ offensive. The balance of forces within the workplaces swung dramatically in favour of the employers, who, in turn, had no hesitation about putting the boot in. For them, it was retribution for the great unrest of organised labour during much of the 1970s. And as we know, revenge is sweet.

Thatcher’s election victory ushered in a period of sustained attack on the Labour movement. Standing at the doorway of Number Ten, Thatcher quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony… where there is despair, may we bring hope.” James Prior, her future minister, recalled: “I was nearly sick on the spot. It was so untypical of Margaret’s attitude.”

Prior was quite right. More typical of Thatcher was the language of open class war. But this strident tone was no accident. It reflected the impasse of British capitalism and the new period that demanded an all-out attack on the wages and conditions of the working class. Her election also coincided with a new world slump from 1979-81 that drove up unemployment to record levels, as millions of workers, especially in manufacturing, lost their jobs in the shake-out.

This new harsh climate shocked and stunned the working class. The fear of mass unemployment, which emerged especially after 1974, proved a key weapon in the hands of the bosses and the Tory government. Behind these attacks lay the over-riding strategy of the ruling class, as well as Thatcher, to restore the diminishing power of British capitalism, at the expense of British workers.

Keynesian deficit financing was now declared dead and buried even under the Callaghan government. Tory economic policy was based upon Milton Friedman’s crude theories, which, under the new-fangled name of Monetarism, merely repeated the old nostrums of classical capitalist economics. These were the stale dishes of the interwar period simply reheated and served on different plates. Thatcher’s monetarist policies actually served to exacerbate the economic crisis, leading to the destruction of around 20 per cent of manufacturing industry between 1979 and 1981.

In the context of the global slump of 1979-81, when the output of the OECD countries fell by some 19 per cent, the impact of these policies on Britain was truly catastrophic. It was a kind of Twentieth Century Luddism – but on a vast scale. Industry after industry went to the wall, in a frenzy of downsizing, asset-stripping and take-overs. British industry was forced onto a Procrustean bed, and cut to pieces. Thatcher epitomised the upstart, short-sighted, get-rich-quick sections of the capitalist class. She proclaimed that British industry was “slimmer and fitter,” when it was dying of anorexia.

The ruling class declared open war on the unions. They put their full weight behind the Tories’ attempt to break the power of the trade unions and teach the working class a brutal lesson. Under Lord Carrington a strategy was worked out to shackle the unions. The Tories had neither forgotten nor forgiven their double humiliation in 1972 and 1974. Thatcher was determined to avenge these indignities and destroy the National Union of Mineworkers. If that meant wrecking the majority of the British coalfield in the process, so be it. Whatever it would take in terms of money and resources, she would see the job through to the end. Nevertheless, the conclusions of Lord Carrington were not particularly optimistic:

“Strong unions and advanced technology operated by their members, particularly in fuel and power, mean that no government these days can ‘win’ in the way Mr. Baldwin’s Cabinet triumphed during the General Strike of 1926 by maintaining supplies and services. The group examined the possibility of using the Armed Forces to break strikes and concluded that such a practice could not be adopted on a large scale for two reasons: first that Britain no longer had enough troops and second that it would permanently damage the fabric and practice of the country’s politics.”[1]

Six weeks after the lily-livered Carrington report and its “capitulationist” conclusions, another internal Tory document drafted by Thatcher’s close ally, Nicholas Ridley MP, was leaked. This was far more encouraging for the Thatcherites. This document sketched out the necessary contingency plans to take on the unions, especially the miners, and defeat them. It categorised three sectors vulnerable to strikes:

“(a) sewerage, water, electricity, gas and the health service is the most vulnerable group; (b) railways, docks, coal and dustmen in an intermediate group; and (c) other public transport, education, the postal service and telephones, air transport and steel in the least vulnerable group.”

It concluded that in the most vulnerable sector strikes could not be fought effectively. It was therefore essential to isolate each group and pick them off one at a time. It was important to concentrate on the weakest sections, and be prepared to take whatever means were necessary, including the rigging of profit figures in the nationalised industries to put them on the defensive. “There should be a large and mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing”, stated Ridley’s report. “Good non-union drivers should be recruited to cross picket-lines with police protection.”

This was music to Thatcher’s ears! It drew a clear distinction between the “wets” and “dries” in the Cabinet. This union-busting strategy was to be systematically applied over the coming years, and was to prepare the most explosive industrial dispute in Britain since 1926. The preparations, in the words of Nigel Lawson, were “just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the late 1930s.” If only the union leaders would show such determination as Thatcher did for her class!

In preparation for the showdown, new hard-faced managers were recruited to deal with the unions in the nationalised industries. In November 1979, the chairman of British Leyland, Sir Michael Edwards, in collusion with the secret services, succeeded in sacking Derek Robinson (vilified in the press as “Red Robbo”), convenor of Longbridge in Birmingham and undermining union organisation in the plant. In April 1980 Edwards imposed a wage deal and changed working practices over the heads of the union. The resulting strike was undermined and broken by threats of dismissals. In November, Edwards threatened to close the Cowley plant if the workers went on strike over pay. Intimidated by these tactics, when the TGWU and AUEW called strikes, they were rejected by large margins and the “deal” was reluctantly accepted.

Following this, management attempted to operate a system of unilateral control, which later resulted in internal changes and mass redundancies throughout British Leyland. These actions represented the new brutal management methods being introduced across British industry. Ian MacGregor, an American boss with a record of fighting the American mineworkers’ unions, was brought in as steel industry chairman to “sort things out”. He had, incidentally, been deputy-chairman of BL under Michael Edwards. In 1980, he provoked a thirteen week steel strike, which ended in defeat for the steel union, the ISTC, under the “moderate” Bill Sirs. This resulted in the destruction of 80,000 jobs. Later MacGregor’s tried and tested talents would be used to take on the miners.

After the bitter experience of the Callaghan government, the Labour Party had moved dramatically to the left. In May 1980 the TUC called a successful mass “Day of Action” against the Tories. In November, the Labour Party held a national demonstration of 150,000 in Liverpool against unemployment. Demands for greater controls over the party leadership and the contents of the election manifesto grew rapidly within Labour’s ranks. This culminated in a special Labour Conference at Wembley in January 1981.

After a bitter struggle, the old system whereby the Parliamentary Labour Party alone elected the Party Leader and Deputy Leader was thrown out, and a new Electoral College was established, giving the unions 40 per cent of the votes, and the constituency parties and the PLP 30 per cent each. It also endorsed mandatory reselection of MPs, which arose from a growing dissatisfaction with the long list of fifth columnists within Labour’s ranks. People such as Reg Prentice, Ray Gunter, Roy Jenkins and George Brown had used and abused the party to promote their careers, and then ditched it. This produced immense dissatisfaction in the ranks that was expressed in the demand for control over the leadership. The changes approved at Wembley abolished the “divine right of MPs” to rule the Labour Party. They were an immense advance for internal democracy and the rights of the rank and file.

Of course, they were not to everybody’s liking. The usual cabal of right-wing trade union leaders did everything in its power to prevent this shift to the left, and organised a secret faction to secure their aims. “St. Ermine’s Hotel dinners, where Duffy (AEU), Roy Grantham (APEX), Bill Sirs (steelworkers), Sid Weighell (railwaymen), Frank Chapple (electricians) and others met regularly to plan their strategy”, revealed The Observer (4 October 1981). Here they met regularly to plot and hatch their plans to subvert the Labour Party. But given the profound disappointment with the Callaghan government, at this stage this secret “conspiracy” was largely a rearguard struggle.

Before the new party rules were put in place, Callaghan resigned, leaving the PLP, yet again, to choose the Leader of the party. Unexpectedly, the soft-left Michael Foot was chosen as the new Leader. In the following election for Deputy Leader, which took place under the new rules, the Left decided to put up Tony Benn against the Right’s candidate, Denis Healey. Benn was defeated by a hair’s breadth – 50.426 per cent to 49.574 per cent. He had taken over 80 per cent support in the Constituency Labour Parties and 40 per cent of the union votes. The vote in the PLP, however, tipped the balance in Healey’s favour.

As a pointer to his future role, Neil Kinnock, though elected on a Left ticket to Labour’s executive committee, abstained with 20 other Tribune supporters, robbing Benn of victory. Another factor in Healey’s favour was the votes of the treacherous “Gang of Four”, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, who voted in the Deputy Leadership election, and then split away from the party soon after to form the SDP. The Gang attracted the support of twenty-five Labour MPs and one Tory to their breakaway. However, as in 1931, the bulk of right-wingers remained behind in the Labour Party.

“I would have fitted into the SDP, and they would have liked to enrol me”, wrote right-winger Betty Boothroyd in her autobiography. “None of my friends who left the party discussed it with me, but I never thought of them as traitors and there was no bitterness between us.”[2] For these right-wingers, it was simply a division of labour in keeping the Labour Party committed to the capitalist track.

The Tories’ hold on power was extremely fragile. 1981 proved to be a low point in Thatcher’s political fortunes. The attacks carried out by the Tories on the welfare state, local government, and the working class generally, provoked enormous resentment. The avalanche of redundancies across the face of British industry added to their unpopularity. The Tories sunk to new lows in the opinion polls. Like King Midas in reverse, everything Thatcher touched seemed to turn to ashes. It was later revealed that the “Iron Lady” was completely demoralised and even on the verge of resigning as Prime Minister.

Premature confrontation

In February 1981, the Tories had provoked a premature confrontation with the miners. The then NCB chairman, Derek Ezra, announced the closure of up to fifty pits on “uneconomic” grounds, twenty-three immediately. Miners in South Wales immediately struck and sent flying pickets calling on other areas to follow suit. Kent struck followed by Scotland, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Totally unprepared for a miners’ strike, the Tories beat a hasty retreat. Tory John Biffen remarked at the time: “I did not come into politics in order to be a Kamikaze pilot.” In the words of Mick McGahey, the NUM’s vice-president, the government’s action was “not so much a U-turn, more a body swerve.” It was only a temporary truce in the war, similar to “Red Friday” 1925, when the miners were granted a subsidy, giving Baldwin time to prepare for a showdown.

Joe Gormley, the right-wing president of the NUM, who had been working closely with MI5, retired in December 1981. By this time, miners were sick and tired of decades of right-wing leadership, which had resulted in massive closures and declining relative pay. As a consequence, Arthur Scargill, the Left candidate, was elected as president with 70 per cent of the vote – the biggest vote for such a position in the union’s history. It was regarded as an historic victory for the Left generally. Scargill, who liked to model himself on Arthur Cook, was by far the most militant of the trade union leaders. At the following year’s union conference in Inverness, the Left clearly revealed its increased strength. Within two years, the Left had won an overall majority on the executive for the first time in NUM history.

The union was certainly in a strong position to face any attempt to introduce a new closure package. However, the left leadership experienced a succession of setbacks. Misjudging the mood, they lost no less than three national strike ballots in just over a year. In January 1982, the call for strike action over a national pay claim was turned down with 45 per cent in favour. Again the October 1982 ballot on pay and jobs was defeated, this time with only 39 per cent support. In February 1983 the NCB announced the closure of two South Wales’ pits, Lewis Merthyr and Blaengwrach. The Lewis Merthyr men occupied their pit and miners struck elsewhere in the coalfield in solidarity. Nonetheless, in a national ballot, while 68 per cent in South Wales voted in favour of action, disastrously only 39 per cent overall voted to support the strike.

It was a bitter pill to swallow and had a disheartening effect on the confidence of many of the union’s activists. In Nottinghamshire only 19 per cent voted for strike action, in South Derbyshire a mere 12 per cent. Many union activists in Scotland, South Wales and the North East, increasingly believed they had been marginalised. Scargill had argued on the executive committee that a national strike could have been called under Rule 41, allowing Area strikes on which national support could be built. However, as the Left was still in a minority at this stage, he was over-ruled by the right-wing majority.

A deep-seated feeling developed amongst a layer of activists that a national ballot on pit closures was unwinnable. They were convinced (wrongly) that the younger miners in Yorkshire, never mind Nottinghamshire, would never be prepared to strike again. Clearly there were difficulties. In particular, the area incentive scheme of 1977, which was forced through by the right wing although it had been thrown out in a national ballot, served to sow divisions within the workforce. There were big disparities between different pits and different areas, which could only be overcome with a continuous campaign of explanation and agitation. The Left wanted to fight in 1982, but with the right wing still in a majority at the top of the union, this was not to be.

Workers, whether they are miners or any other section, do not go on strike at the drop of a hat. Not only must there be a strong reason, but a strike needs to be well prepared. This is particularly the case where workers are challenging a hostile government. This is even more the case over the issue of pit closures when miners were under varying degrees of threat. A campaign would have to be waged to reach to every worker to explain all the issues so that essential unity could be built from below. Given the results of previous ballots, a lot of work had still to be done in the field of propaganda and organisation.

The Tories had introduced anti-trade union legislation to curb the power of the unions. The Trade Union Act of 1980 provided finance for secret ballots, limited picketing to six people, outlawed secondary picketing and removed the immunity for certain types of secondary actions. The 1982 Act exposed union funds to damages for “unlawful acts” (unless explicitly repudiated) and removed trade union immunity from political strikes. This legislation placed restrictions on the closed shop: “The Conservative Party is not prepared to get itself into a position of trying to pass laws which employers ask us to pass and then don’t use”, remarked Employment secretary James Prior.

Under pressure from below, the TUC Congresses of 1982 and 1983 passed motions of opposition to these laws and promised to mobilise the movement in the event of any legal attacks. However, the leaders of the trade unions were constantly looking to avoid confrontation with the Tory government, preferring the road of “dialogue”. By 1985, with the engineering and electricians unions voting to accept Tory government funds for secret ballots, any semblance of united trade union opposition to government legislation finally crumbled.

In 1982 the Left’s advance in the Labour movement appeared to have come to a halt. This was partly a reflection of the objective situation. Following the slump of 1979-81, the growth of mass unemployment sapped the strength of the working class. Unemployment had risen to well over three million, three times the figure of 1979. Under these conditions, industrial militancy began to ebb away, although a number of bitter strikes still occurred even during these years. These involved civil servants, oil tanker drivers, water workers, carworkers, printworkers, teachers, bank workers, prison officers, bakers, civil servants, ambulance workers, seafarers, miners, railworkers, and steelworkers. Despite this long list of disputes, the number of days actually lost through strikes in 1983 – a general election year – was the lowest since the war.

There were other factors in this industrial ebb, such as the defeat of the train drivers in July 1982 over the question of “flexible rostering”. British Rail saw flexible rostering as part of the previous summer’s deal on pay and productivity. Determined to increase “efficiency” (cut costs), management had sought to impose a productivity deal on the industry involving a flexible roster that would eventually lead to 4,000 job losses. “The isolation of the ASLEF executive and its militant stupidity was going to be crucial to my strategy”, wrote Sir Peter Parker, Chairman of British Rail.[3]

Flexible rostering

Management successfully managed to bring the NUR and TSSA on board. While Parker regarded Sid Weighell of the NUR as “a man to do business with”, ASLEF’s Ray Buckton “went with the Militant Tendency, although I still doubt whether he was one of them.”[4] Parker withdrew the last pay offer of three per cent, but this backfired when it provoked the NUR to take action. Of course, Weighell opposed the strike. “I’ve already told them they’re daft”, Weighell told Parker. ASLEF also planned to strike. “What made this time particularly dangerous was that the separate negotiations with ASLEF and NUR were racing parallel and it was absolutely essential they be kept apart: a combined attack by both unions would have been hard, if not impossible, to resist”, stated Parker.[5] But within 48 hours of the NUR strike, Weighell had come to the rescue and managed to get the strike called off, leaving ASLEF isolated.

Management announced that it was imposing flexible rostering by 5 July unless, by 30 June, ASLEF agreed to its introduction. The ASLEF strike began on 4 July. Thatcher was now flushed with the military victory in the South Atlantic. She now talked of the trade unions in the same terms that she spoke of the Argentine army. In a speech at Cheltenham, Thatcher invoked what she called the “Falkland’s spirit”. BR tried everything to break the strike and even announced the closure of the whole network. Eventually, with a back room deal brokered by the TUC the strike buckled after two weeks. “Len (Murray) could get no public thanks for his help, but his intervention, the generosity of his time, was typical of him”, states Parker. “He was one of the industry’s gentlemen.”[6]

“The collapse of the two-week strike by Britain’s train drivers is one of the most significant union defeats of recent times and its repercussions will be felt throughout the Labour movement…” stated Philip Bassett, Labour Correspondent of The Financial Times. “The outcome is a triumph for the hard line approach to industrial relations as patented by Sir Michael Edwards at BL… Again the ending of the strike, and ASLEF’s likely acceptance of flexible rostering, is a success for the government on a spectacular scale. Following the victory over the Falklands, the government was in no mood to compromise.”[7]

The article continued:

“The fact that it was the TUC which provided the means for getting the railways back to work may give it kudos among outsiders. To the union rank and file it will be taken as evidence of betrayal.”

Indeed it is hard to find any other word to describe this. The leadership had capitulated and, to make matters worse, the “Left” on the General Council was also responsible, as no vote was even taken on the negotiating body when the deal was hatched to accept flexible rostering. The pathetic conduct of the TUC is summed up by the following exchange between the general secretary of the TUC and the Chairman of British rail:“OK, Peter, that’s it then”, said Len Murray to Parker. “Don’t shoot any prisoners.”[8] The defeat served to further undermine the confidence of the workers. If the left-wing ASLEF could not win, what hope was there for the less militant unions?

In the political arena, under the pressure of the capitalist media, a witch-hunt was in full swing inside the Labour Party against supporters of the Militant tendency, resulting in the expulsion of its editorial board from the party. This was the prelude of an attack against the Left generally, and had the full backing of the right-wing trade union leaders. The growing mood of witch hunting and McCarthyism within the Party and the hue and cry in the press affected the “soft Left”, which began to shift rapidly to the right. A number of former “Lefts” were to eventually end up as leading Blairites, such as Mr Paul Boateng, now a minister at the Treasury, and David Blunkett, now Blair’s reactionary Home Secretary.

The Falklands War

Up until April 1982, the Tories had been floundering in the opinion polls. They were in grave difficulties politically and looked as if they were heading for electoral defeat. The revival of their political fortunes was the result of an unforeseen accident. In order to deflect the growing unrest within his own country, Argentina’s General Galtieri, a loyal and trusted ally of Britain, seized the Falkland Islands, a British province in the South Atlantic. This act resulted in war with Britain, a war that neither side expected or desired: “Sadly, both sides misread the real intentions of the other”, stated Tory minister William Whitelaw.

Up until that moment Britain had had very good relations with the Argentine military dictatorship. They had cheerfully supplied a regime that had murdered 24,000 people since 1976 with destroyers, bombers, planes and missiles. They were even prepared to contemplate handing the Falkland Islands back to Argentina, a fact that was underlined by the negotiations conducted by Lord Carrington, Thatcher’s foreign minister and confidant, with the Junta. But the seizure of the islands was a military humiliation for Britain that could not be accepted.

The war provided a golden opportunity for Thatcher to rally people on the basis of “national unity” against the “foreign aggression” perpetrated on the Falkland Islanders. Up until then, the British government showed not the slightest interest in the conditions or rights of the Falklanders, and even went as far as to deny them entry into Britain under the Nationality Act. Even less were they concerned with the democratic rights of the Argentineans. Only after the invasion of the islands did they suddenly discover that the Junta was a “fascist” regime that murdered and tortured people.

It would not have been difficult to expose the hypocritical and lying propaganda of the Tories in relation to Argentina. But the confused and position of the Labour leadership on the war played into Tory hands. Michael Foot revealed himself as a dithering old man in the debates in the Commons, where in practice he supported the fleet being sent to the South Atlantic to “defend democracy”, but then was against using it! By contrast Thatcher appeared to be firm and uncompromising, as indeed she always was in defence of the interests of capitalism and imperialism.

In fact, however, this “uncompromising” style was a disguise for stupidity and a lack of any understanding, perspective or sense of proportion. Traditionally, the most able leaders of the British ruling class were characterised by their extreme flexibility. They were usually aristocrats, used to taking abroad view of things, whereas Mrs. Thatcher (like Tony Blair) was a middle-class upstart, accustomed to thinking in pounds, shillings and pence. And upstarts with big ideas are very dangerous animals, highly prone to adventures.

A “conviction” politician (again like Tony Blair), the “Iron lady” merely blundered into situations and hoped for the best. This is not a very intelligent policy. In fact, it is not a policy at all. From a military point of view the Falklands war was a foolish adventure that could easily have ended in a catastrophe (and nearly did so). Mrs Thatcher’s great advantage was that she usually faced enemies who were even more incompetent than herself. The result of the war was just a stroke of luck. But it dramatically transformed the perspectives for her government.

The quick victory over Argentina had a profound short-term effect. It was sufficient to provide the Tory government with a landslide victory at the general election. In December 1981, the Tories were trailing at 23 per cent in the polls; a month after the Falklands’ war, their support stood at 46 per cent, with Labour at 27 per cent and the SDP-Liberal Alliance at 24 per cent. By the time of the general election in June 1983, the Tories scored a major victory with 43.5 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 28.3 per cent and the SDP-Alliance’s 26 per cent. The Tory landslide was a terrible blow for the Labour Party. While the SDP failed to split the Labour Party, it did succeed in splitting the Labour vote, costing the party some 2-3 million votes, and resulting in its most humiliating defeat in sixty years.

This was the highpoint for the SDP-Alliance. It was backed by the capitalist media with the expressed intention of undermining the “extremist” Labour Party. Eventually, an acrimonious unity between the SDP and the Liberal Party resulted in a messy fusion to form the Liberal Democrats. However, a number of former SDP members, who stabbed the Labour Party in the back, would eventually rejoin the Labour Party to provide support for John Smith, and especially Tony Blair.

In the aftermath of the 1983 defeat, Michael Foot resigned and Neil Kinnock, the former-left, was elected leader of the Labour Party. It marked a significant move to the right in the Party and the unions. At the TUC Congress in September, Len Murray, the Methodist general secretary, with the vocal support of right-wingers Frank Chappell of the Electrical Electronic Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) and Alistair Graham of the Civil Public Services Association (CPSA), announced the policy of “New Realism”. It signified the official abandonment of any form of militant action or resistance to Thatcherism.

In the opinion of these people, the unions had to accept the domination of Thatcherism, adopt a more “conciliatory” approach to the employers, and above all be prepared to enter talks with the Tory government:

“We cannot talk as if the trade union movement is some sort of alternative government…” said Murray. “We are at a watershed in our affairs,” Graham said. “It is obvious that very many of us are in the mood for change, and my argument is that change we must.”

For the right wing, the unions had to be pragmatic and hold out the hand of “co-operation” to the union-hater Thatcher. This, in turn, would involve the unions distancing themselves to a greater degree than ever before from the Labour Party. The unions had to “do business” with the Tories as well as the employers.

The TUC tops fell over backwards in their enthusiasm for carrying out this hopeless strategy of prostration. “TUC involvement in government owes much to Churchill’s war-time Coalition government, and to the Conservative governments that established the NEDC and the MSC”, pontificated the TUC Strategy, written by Len Murray. The TUC Congress accepted “New Realism” by 5.8 million to 4 million votes. It signified the start of the most catastrophic period of defeats and decline in the history of the trade union movement for the last half a century.

What caused this shift to the right in the Labour movement, especially at the top? The ruling class puts tremendous pressure on the leaders of the movement through its press, media, and “public opinion” as a means of moulding their outlook. The elevated position of the trade union and Labour leadership, with their indulgent life-style, creates an inherent tendency to become divorced from the rank and file. They came to see themselves as mediators in the class struggle, with one foot in either camp. In times of heightened class struggle, when workers are active and participating in their organisations, they put counter pressure on the tops of the unions, forcing them to reflect the aspirations of the rank and file. Conversely, when the mass organisations empty out, the leadership is subjected to the pressures of the ruling class a hundred-fold. This causes them to shift further to the right and embrace bourgeois ideology.

Broadly speaking this process took place during the 1980s. In this decade, although the rate of exploitation increased, the capitalists were generally prepared to grant wage rises above the rate of inflation. In particular from 1982 until 1987 there was a rise in real earnings. Those fortunate enough to keep their jobs, particularly in manufacturing industry, experienced an increase in living standards in absolute terms, though the rate of exploitation increased, as did indebtedness through credit.

The increased intensity and pressure of work meant that most workers had less time to participate in the union organisations. In any case, what was the point of participating when the unions were not offering anything? Therefore, participation in the trade unions and Labour Party fell away as the result of both objective and subjective reasons. This, in turn, served to intensify the pressures of capitalism on the trade union and Labour leadership, pushing them further to the right. The economic boom of the 1980s, which began in 1982, provided the material basis for this rightward shift of the social pendulum. There were other factors that reinforced this development, especially the series of defeats on the industrial front, which again served to sap the confidence of the working class.

Warrington dispute

During December 1983, just months after the Tory victory, came another important test case for the unions. In Warrington a bitter dispute broke out between the print union, the National Graphical Association (NGA), and the Stockport Messenger, a local newspaper owned by small businessman Eddie Shah – an anti-union tin-pot employer and staunch admirer of Margaret Thatcher. The dispute was over the employment of non-union labour. It was a vital dispute for the print industry. If the print unions could be defeated here, then the employers across the industry would be given the green light to smash closed shop agreements and introduce new technology at the expense of jobs. During the dispute, the print bosses and the Tories bankrolled Eddie Shah.

At Warrington the policing methods later used against other strikers, especially the miners, were perfected. It was a dress rehearsal for future industrial battles. At one point, in a departure from “normal” policing, police set up road blocks on M6 motorway exits to stop pickets getting near the newspaper plant. On the picket line riot police were used in the most ferocious manner to attack strikers and keep the plant open. Clearly the use of these new policing techniques was intended to prevent any possibility of a re-enactment of Saltley Gate, where the police were caught completely off guard.

As soon as the NGA instructed all its members to boycott the Stockport Messenger Group and began mass picketing of the Warrington Plant, Eddie Shah was granted an injunction against the union for breaching the 1980 Employment Act – which forbade secondary action – as well as the 1982 Employment Act – limiting the closed shop. When the union ignored the injunction it was first fined £50,000. When it still refused to obey the court, further fines of £100,000, and eventually £250,000 were imposed. At the end of November 1983, the High Court ordered the sequestration of the total assets of the NGA.

This was a declaration of all-out war by the Tory government. Under the circumstances, the printworkers looked to the TUC for solidarity action. In December, the Employment Committee of the General Council voted to support the NGA’s stance. However, Len Murray, who was subsequently backed by the full General Council, publicly repudiated this stand. This sabotage by the TUC right wing left the NGA isolated. The union went down to defeat. To rub salt into the wound, at the full legal hearing in 1984, Eddie Shah was awarded a further £250,000 damages against the NGA. This represented a major defeat for the trade union movement.

This signalled the beginning of an offensive in the print industry that was to effectively break the strength of the print unions and tear up all terms and conditions. A decade later, after the rout of the print unions at Warrington and Wapping, a centralised deal was eventually agreed between the employers and the GPMU (which was an amalgamation of the NGA and SOGAT). Complete “flexibility” was introduced into the industry between all occupations and grades, effectively sweeping away all demarcation lines between skills. Both unions and employers agreed that “the industry’s workforce, plant and equipment” would be “deployed fully and effectively in order to increase efficiency, provide a quick and flexible response to customers’ requirements and improve profitability.”[9]

In January 1984, Thatcher personally stepped in to ban 7,000 staff at GCHQ communications centre in Cheltenham from holding union membership. Trade unionists, it was implied, could no longer be trusted with national security. This was another blatant attack on democratic rights and a further affront to the trade union movement. However, the TUC gave a docile response, offering Thatcher a feeble “no-disruption” deal at GCHQ. Predictably, the Prime Minister rejected the offer “with distain”, to quote the moderate Alistair Graham, who took his “New Realism” very seriously and, not surprisingly, ended up on the other side of the class divide. He later resigned from the CPSA to become head of the Industrial Society.

After the 1983 general election victory, with a thumping 141-seat majority behind her, Thatcher appointed Peter Walker as Energy Secretary. “Peter, I want you to go to Energy,” Walker is said to have been told by Thatcher. “We’re going to have a miners’ strike.”[10]


[1] The Times, 18 April 1978

[2] Betty Boothroyd – The Autobiography, p.109, London 2001

[3] Parker, For Starters, p.254, London 1989

[4] Ibid, p.258

[5] Ibid, p.276

[6] Ibid, p.281

[7] The Financial Times, 19 July 1982

[8] Parker, op. cit, p.286

[9] Quoted in Taylor, op. cit, p.102

[10] Michael Crick, Scargill and the Miners, p.96, London 1985