WHILE THE 1969 events were unfolding in Ireland, 10,000 Merseyside Dockers went on strike over the refusal of container base employers to take on Dockers registered under the Dock Labour Scheme which guaranteed minimum wages and conditions.
This was the beginning of a massive rationalisation of the labour force which was subsequently to result in the decimation of the dock labour force.
After initial confusion, the whole of the docklands came out in support of workers who had boycotted containers at depots where unregistered labour was employed. This was a foretaste of the battles to come, which would spark one of the greatest post-war industrial struggles in the early 1970s.
The determination of the Dockers enabled Jack Jones, who was then the secretary-elect of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, to emerge from negotiations with a settlement far better than he had originally put forward. Militant had warned:
This was a fitting end to the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, which had started with the events leading to the formation of the Labour government and the establishment of Militant and ended against the backdrop of worldwide social and socialist upheavals and growing radicalisation in the British labour movement.
Looking towards the next decade, Militant’s editorial in January 1970 was headed: "Into the ‘70s - a decade of revolution". This was an accurate forecast of what was to come in the next ten years. Our editorial declared:
Only months into the new decade this prognosis was being borne out. The Labour government was defeated in the June 1970 general election "amidst scenes of wild jubilation at the Stock Exchange, the rocketing of shares in the market by a record £1,500 million (£30 for every man, woman and child in the country)." The Tories had been returned to power with an overall majority of 30 on 18 June.
Overall, the Labour vote had dropped by 888,000 with its share of the total vote dropping from 47.9 per cent in 1966 to 43 per cent. Significantly, the drop in the turnout compared to 1966 was four per cent, from 76 per cent to 72 per cent. This almost solely accounted for the overall drop in the Labour vote. Pointing to the lessons of the Labour government, we stated:
In trying to draw the lessons of Labour’s defeat, Hugh Scanlon, President of the AUEW, declared: "In future, the trade union movement will have to raise the fundamental issues of control and ownership of industry."
Lodged in the situation which was developing in Britain was the possibility of a general strike. Heath, the new Tory Premier, made more than one veiled warning of such a possibility. In November 1970 Militant warned:
The Times even went to the lengths when dealing with the dangers of inflation to include in an article an ominous reference to "some sort of authoritarian regime" if inflation reached the rate of 50 per cent.
The Heath government was to heed this advice.
Industrial Relations Bill
Before the year was out, Heath’s Tory government had announced its intention to savagely curb trade union rights with the introduction of its Industrial Relations Bill. Thousands of workers marched in protest on 8 December and Militant reported a "huge sale of over 1,000 copies up and down the country." (8)
Early into the new year an immense movement of opposition to the anti-union bill began. We reported:
Militant explained that it was one thing to introduce anti-union legislation and quite another to implement it in the charged situation which existed at the beginning of the 1970s. What is written through working-class strength and organisation cannot be erased by a stroke of the pen, even by the "mighty legislative pen" of Westminster.
Upper Clyde Shipbuilders
The Heath government was to learn a bitter lesson in this regard during the ensuing months and years. Militant also reported on the gathering mood of opposition to the plans of the Tory government to close the huge Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in Glasgow. In response to this attack, the workers had occupied the shipyards in their famous ‘sit-in’. Militant reported:
In our 3 September issue, we featured the UCS struggle on our front page. There had been massive support for the occupation with huge demonstrations in Glasgow on 18 August. But the government and their appointed ‘liquidator’ were quite happy
A call was therefore made for the nationalisation of the yards as the only guarantee against massive redundancies. At the same time, Militant was to the fore in giving support to the occupation. This movement had put its stamp not only on the outlook of the Scottish working class but in a sense on the whole of the labour movement.
Tony Benn, who participated in the mass demonstrations and spoke to the stewards and the workers, was affected by the rising militancy displayed in the UCS struggle. He had been on the right, or at best in the centre-left, during the Labour government. Now, under the influence of events, he began to evolve towards the left. This represented not just a personal evolution but the big shifts in consciousness which had taken place amongst advanced workers.
There was an almost continuous rise in consciousness and combativity in the period of 1970-74. There was a certain pause after the Labour government of 1974-79 came to power. But in general the movement steadily evolved towards the left, culminating in the battles between 1979 and 1981 over left policies and Benn’s challenge for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party.
At the time of the UCS struggle, Militant came out clearly not just for the nationalisation of UCS "but... Swan Hunter’s, which lost £10 million last year, Cammell Laird’s, Harland and Wolf, indeed the whole industry is completely unviable on a capitalist basis."
How true these words ring today with the closure of Cammel Laird’s and now a death sentence hanging over Swan Hunter and a minimum workforce at Harland and Wolf. Militant demanded that the industry
The bosses, it was declared,
But UCS was not the only struggle which convulsed industry in 1971. A work-to-rule by power workers had taken place in January. A power worker, writing for Militant, stated: "We were hardly a militant section of the trade union movement but the Tories have really hardened us up." The Evening Standard had depicted the men as ‘animals’. Militant also reported that "John Davis, the Minister of Industry, actually called upon individuals to ‘harass’ electricity workers and their families for their action." (14)
Rolls Royce workers were also threatened with complete closure of their factory in March 1971 and management tried to use the threat of bankruptcy to undermine their resistance to a wage standstill policy.
The demand for a General Strike
Above all, these battles were taking place against the backcloth of mass opposition to the Industrial Relations Bill. This culminated in February 1971 in a huge 300,000-strong TUC demonstration marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, where the call for a general strike was taken up, amongst others, by the huge miners’ contingent. Heath himself had mentioned in a TV broadcast his preparedness to "face up" to a general strike.
The issue of a general strike became a hotly debated question in the workers’ movement at this stage. Some ‘theoreticians’ came out in favour of an unlimited general strike. Militant, on the contrary, echoing Trotsky’s warning to examine the issue of a general strike in a ‘painstaking’ fashion, argued that a 24-hour general strike of the whole of the organised trade union and labour movement was the most effective way of combating the government at that stage.
In a series of articles, we pointed that an all-out general strike "poses the question of power". It is an ‘either/or’ situation where the working class goes fully towards the seizure of power or can face a defeat, sometimes a crushing defeat. This was the lesson of 1926, and, in a different historical situation, the recent general strike in France in 1968.
It was necessary to elaborate a programme of preparing the working class for such a struggle. Moreover, a 24-hour general strike in Britain would have much greater consequences than the 24-hour strikes which had become quite common in Italy, for instance. Once the full power of the working class had been demonstrated in a one-day stoppage, an entirely unprecedented situation would open up. At a certain stage, the Marxists themselves would launch the slogan of an unlimited general strike, but only after proper preparation and with the working class fully politically armed and understanding what was involved.
Our organisation grows
Militant, still smaller than rival organisations claiming to be Marxist or Trotskyist, was struggling to leave behind its swaddling clothes to become a significant force within the labour movement. In the changed political and social situation of Britain, confidently looking towards expanding, we declared in October 1970:
Apart from the increase in circulation, we have produced leaflets on all the major industrial and political issues. Supporters in a number of areas now produce regular local editions and supplements. In the trade unions it has been necessary to produce special pamphlets going more fully into specific problems facing these industries.
We have seen established under the impetus of the growing militancy of the white-collar workers and our teacher supporters the regular production of Militant Teacher, which of course covers the whole spectrum of education... The Militant International Review (our magazine) is now produced every three months.
Greater financial and other commitments from our supporters were called for:
By February 1971, we could report:
These premises were bought from the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and were in a state of dereliction. In effect Militant had bought for £3,500 the shell of a building. To become habitable it had to be completely renovated from top to bottom: drains had to be laid, joists put in, floors completely rebuilt, walls plastered.
The headline over the October 1970 editorial read, "Build the Militant!" This acquired a particular practical significance for those pioneers who laboured to construct the first really independent headquarters of Militant.
Into a back shed was packed Militant’s first precious printing press, acquired through the diligence of Militant’s first printer, Alan Hardman. Also stuffed into this shed was a very archaic folding machine. The plates for the press were made elsewhere. Never to be forgotten by those involved at this time was the extremely antiquated "varityper" on which all the articles for the first issue of the fortnightly Militant were set. Patrick Craven in particular performed miracles on this machine for the first few issues. The first fortnightly Militant was produced and sold with no more than 217 committed supporters throughout the country.
Big financial sacrifices had been made: "In the last month outstanding amongst many donations was a magnificent £60 from two supporters in Bristol." This step could not have been taken at a more opportune moment. "On the 12 January demonstrations against the Tory government’s anti-union bill our sellers rapidly exhausted their supplies of papers."17
Once a Fortnight
Some supporters mentioned that "as soon as the workers saw the headlines "Down with businessmen’s government" they reached for their money!" Only seven months later, in September 1971, the first fortnightly Militant was launched:
As 1971 drew to a close the editors predicted that the next year would see
Now every week
Very soon we were able to take another big step forward. Militant went weekly on 28 January 1972. It was a red letter day for all supporters of the paper and for Marxism in Britain. "This is the first issue of the weekly Militant. In the short space of three months, we have changed from a fortnightly to a weekly." The number of committed supporters had increased considerably. Between the launch of the fortnightly and the weekly 137 new supporters had been recruited. However, the total number of supporters was still only 354. The weekly could not have been launched at a better time, coming as it did in the midst of a miners’ strike. We announced:
Fighting Rent increases
At the same time, the Tories launched a sharp attack on tenants in the Housing Finance Bill. The purpose was to drive councils, in particular Labour ones, to increase rents. The mass opposition to the Housing Finance Bill was, however, undermined by the NEC of the Labour Party which proposed a campaign of "neutralising or lessening" the increases and "delaying" the effects of the Bill. The NEC and their lawyers advised the movement not to take the Bill head on, but to grapple with legal technicalities. Militant quoted the statement of the NEC:
This anticipated the role of the right wing in all major battles that were to confront the labour movement in the next period. The same attitude by the leadership was shown in the battle in Liverpool in the 1980s. Militant counterposed to this an active programme of resistance:
An indication of the mood in Labour ranks was the fact that the London Regional Council of the party had called for
This highlights just how far the ‘modern-day’ Labour Party has moved in a rightward direction. Such a principled resolution, moved by supporters of Militant, was accepted by the London Labour Party. Other regions of the Labour Party followed suit. In the South West, for instance, the same kind of demands for resistance were made.
There was big opposition to the Tories’ housing bill from all sections of the labour movement. But only the heroic councillors of Clay Cross were prepared to go to the end in defiance of the government. Like the Liverpool councillors in the 1980s, they were surcharged and banned from office. Their struggle was fully supported and reported in the pages of Militant (and some of the Clay Cross Labour Party members became Militant supporters). On 8 December, for instance, Militant reported:
Graham Skinner, one of the famous ‘Skinner’ family (brother Dennis, Labour MP for Bolsover, is the best known), and one of the 11 Clay Cross Labour Party councillors, speaking to Militant commented:
Miners’ Strike 1972 - Saltley Gates
Militant, although still a small force, nevertheless played an important role in some of the key battles of 1972. The epic miners’ strike of that year, the first since 1926, was fully reported in our pages. Militant supporters in Birmingham had played a key role in tipping off the NUM pickets in Birmingham that Saltley Gate was being used as a collecting depot for "scab coal". Lorry drivers from all over the country were arriving at Saltley Gate.
On 18 February, an eye-witness report on what became known as the ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’ began: "At first there were only ten of us, then 20, 50, 500 and finally 10,000." It had been in response to a tip-off by members of the local Labour Party Young Socialists that the NUM moved into Birmingham. ‘Cowboy’ lorrydrivers from all over Britain
Initially these pickets managed to turn back a number of lorries but eventually the police arrived in numbers.
A virtual guerrilla war took place between miners and pickets on the one side and the police on the other, leading to the final confrontation.
Arthur Scargill, who was in Birmingham at that time, acted in a typically bold fashion when car plant stewards came with collections of money to the miners’ headquarters. Instead of expressing gratitude, Scargill refused to accept this financial help, demanding instead that the stewards call their members out in solidarity with the miners. We reported:
Under mass pressure
This incident had a decisive effect in shaping the outlook of workers and bosses. It infuriated the Tories who prepared to take revenge later.
The pulse quickens
The year 1972, particularly the first six or seven months, was one of the most tumultuous in the history of the labour movement since 1945. Militant still had small forces. But to re-read the pages of the paper, even for those who lived through the events, is to feel the increased pulse of the labour movement and the working class at that time.
One section of the working class after another appeared to be on strike or considering strike action. In April the paper carried the headline: "Tories incite violence against railmen." Sporadic strike action by railworkers, according to the Daily Express "infuriated passengers on the 5.24 from Waterloo to Dorking" who then decided to "hijack their train at Epsom when the driver plans to leave them." Militant pointed out that "as a result of this vicious sort of propaganda, hundreds of railwaymen have been jostled, hit and spat upon by sections of the ‘Bowler Hat Brigade’." (26) We also reported a sit-in by Oxford carworkers at the BLMC (British Leyland) body plant.
But the issue in 1972 which brought Britain to the brink of a general strike, for the first time since 1926, revolved around the battle of the Dockers against containerisation. The real purpose of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act was demonstrated in this dispute.
Sir John Donaldson, High Court judge and head of the newly established Industrial Relations Court, declared that the union leaders must discipline and even expel their members, area officials and shop stewards, if his court should dictate so. Failure to do so would be met with charges of contempt of court and the unions heavily fined. Refusal to comply resulted in fines of £5,000 and £50,000 on the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
The arguments of Militant about the nature of the Act and the analysis of class relations were demonstrated in May, June and July, 1972. Through the medium of the government, the capitalists were attempting to bind the unions to the state and convert the leadership into what the American socialist Daniel De Leon (1852-1914) called ‘Labour lieutenants of capital’.
Some union leaders in the Technical Administrative and Supervisory Staffs (TASS), declared their intention to pursue a policy of "non-compliance" with the Act. But prominent left trade union leader Jack Jones announced that the TGWU would not undertake any "illegal actions". Under pressure from Jones, the executive committee of the union agreed - but only by the casting vote of the chairman - to pay the court’s fines. Militant pointed out that if the whole of the trade union movement defied the court, there would not be enough jails to contain those who would defy the act.
Jimmy Symes, chairman of the Liverpool dock shop stewards committee, told Militant, "Unions weren’t built on funds; they were built on the blood and sweat of their members. The strength of any union depends on its shopfloor." (27)
But the government was using the docks’ dispute as a trial of strength with organised labour. In June 35,000 dockworkers, backed by millions of other workers, "in one day of action have reduced the Tory Industrial Relations Act to ashes and humbled the government which tried to use it to dragoon the trade union movement." (28)
However, the dispute on containerisation, centring on Chobham Farm in east London, threatened at one stage to become a fratricidal struggle between different sections of the same union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
Militant suggested a conference of the Dockers and workers involved in Chobham Farm and the containerisation issue as a means of working out a common policy in opposition to the employers. The bosses believed they could exploit the divisions between the workers at Chobham Farm and elsewhere. Using Donaldson and the Industrial Relations Court, five Dockers’ leaders were jailed in July. As soon as the imprisonment took place any ‘sectional’ conflict evaporated and a mass movement developed from below. This more and more assumed the proportions of a general strike.
Mass Movement from below
And it was not just token or one-day action which developed. In the most militant areas, workers were talking about coming out for longer. This movement had all the features of a potential ‘1968’. Even the general council of the TUC came out in favour of a 24-hour general strike, but only after it had become clear that the Dockers were about to be released. As soon as the government and the capitalists saw the reaction of the working class as a whole, they suddenly improvised a ‘fairy godmother’, in the form of the Official Solicitor, who intervened and secured the release of the Dockers. This prevented a general strike from taking place.
This movement vindicated the analysis of Militant. The paper had argued that lodged in the explosive situation in Britain was the possibility of a general strike.
It was not just the heavy battalions which moved into action. Previously inert sections of society were infected with the general disaffected mood which percolated through industry and society throughout the year of 1972. In May of that year Militant reported:
This was at a time when unemployment had barely touched a million. This movement, in which young Militant supporters participated, foreshadowed an even bigger movement which developed in the 1980s. The fact that Militant could intervene in such movements, with young, fresh forces, was itself a reflection of the growth and support of the Labour Party Young Socialists and within this a huge increase in the support for Militant.
Labour Party Young Socialists
Militant had gained the majority on the Labour Party Young Socialists National Committee by 1972. This became a powerful weapon for intervening in workers’ struggles and the labour movement generally. The paper reported on 23 June, 1972: "Over 100 delegates from tenants associations, trade unions and Labour Party branches attended the London LPYS conference of tenants and Labour." 30 The LPYS was to the fore in the intervention in all the big disputes of 1972 and attracted to its banner the best, most combative, elements amongst the youth.