The Police


Trade Union Rights! The Police and the Labour Movement

By Lynn Walsh, illustration by Alan Hardman

Workers taking industrial action— particularly when organising picketing, a vital trade union right— have time and again come into conflict with the police. With the Tones’ new anti-trade union legislation, there are likely to be even bigger battles. Trade unionists defending jobs and living standards fact the threat of jail either through non-payment of fines or “contempt of court”, or through collisions with police trying to enforce limits on picketing or alleging “obstruction” or “public order” offences.

Ironically, however, one of the last groups of potential strikers to be threatened with imprisonment were the police themselves. This was under the last, right-wing Labour government. The episode was only publicised much later. The Sunday Times (9 August 1981) revealed: “The chairman of the Police Federation, Jim Jardine, was threatened with imprisonment as recently as 1977 though the threat was kept a secret at the time. It happened when police, angry at low pay, howled down Merlyn Rees, the Home Secretary of the day, at a meeting in Westminster Hall. Jim Jardine (a serving police constable) was told by a senior officer that calls for strike action would have to be strongly resisted otherwise he would be taken to court and face imprisonment under the 1964 Police Act (under section 53 which prohibits ‘causing disaffection’).”

Strike action by the police was headed off with an immediate 10 per cent rise and the promise of an inquiry into their pay. When the Tory government returned in 1979, Whitelaw announced the big increases recommended by the inquiry with a big fanfare, clearly attempting to buy the police’s loyalty for future confrontation with the labour movement. However, it is clear that in the period of police discontent before 1977 police were leaving at a rapid rate, not only because of pay and conditions but because of disquiet at the way they were being used against strikes and demonstrations.

The 1977 episode points to the contradictory character of the police. While an arm of the state—increasing one of the “armed bodies of men” who make up the capitalists’ repressive apparatus—the police, like the armed forces, are composed of men and women drawn overwhelmingly from the working class, and they have their interests and demands as workers. The police pay disputes of 1970, 1975 and 1976-77 aroused growing demands for genuine trade union organisation and action. The demand for the right to strike was intensely debated. A majority of constables in a number of areas indicated in referenda that they wanted strike action. The inspectors were against striking, but the sergeants wavered in between. At the Police Federation conference in Scarborough in May 1977 an overwhelming majority voted for strike action. Federation leaders undoubtedly feared that some constables would take wild-cat action if the leadership failed to move.

Cartoon by Alan Hardman

Grievances about pay and conditions and frustration with the Federation had clearly produced the beginnings of trade union consciousness among many police men and women. Among a minority, moreover, industrial militancy had clearly begun to stimulate a more generalised class consciousness, with a questioning of their role and their relationship with the labour movement. At Scarborough a young Metropolitan constable said: “We’re no different from other workers. We may wear funny clothes and do society’s dirty work for them. But we come from the same stock as other workers. (Boos) We have only our labour power to sell, not capital.” (Quoted in Robert Reiner, The Blue-Coated Worker) His speech was greeted with cat-calls and shouts of “Commie”, etc. Clearly, while militant on pay, the majority of delegates still voiced backward, if not reactionary sentiments towards the labour movement and on social issues. But the very fact that this class-conscious attitude could be expressed by one delegate, even if he represented only a tiny minority at that stage, is very significant.

The ranks of the police were affected by workers’ struggles from 1970-77, and many police looked to Labour for progress. But the police, like most other workers, were disappointed by the Labour government’s failure to implement its programme. Labour’s Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, summarily rejected their call for the right to strike, while trying to persuade them quietly to accept the government’s wage-restraint policy. The record of the Labour government, to say the least, was hardly calculated to swing the police ranks towards the labour movement.

The 1977 episode, in itself, underlines the need for the labour movement to adopt a worked-out policy towards the police. While opposing the repressive use of the force, Labour must nevertheless appeal to the police ranks. While campaigning for democratic accountability of the police, the movement must also call for trade union rights for the police, with the replacement of the Police Federation by a genuinely independent union organisation. It is not only a question of defending the economic interests of the police, but of working to bring the ranks of the police into the orbit of the labour movement.

This has been opposed by some pseudo-Marxists as “Utopian”. They want to write off the police as “one reactionary mass”, as though they were a completely uniform, immutable instrument of repression. This is a completely one-sided, incorrect view which takes no account of the changes which can be produced by events.

It is undoubtedly true that there are reactionaries in the police. Clearly, there are racialists and some fascist sympathisers within the ranks, and democratic accountability would be used to make sure that these were weeded out. In recent years, moves from the top to shape the police into a more repressive force and the aggressive operational tactics increasingly adopted by local police chiefs has led many of the more reasonable types to leave the force. Recruiting and training is undoubtedly directed towards producing the kind of police the state requires under new conditions. But ultimately the mood and outlook of the police, the balance between their repressive role and the police ranks’ own class demands, still depends on the balance of class and political forces in society.

The 1968 May events in France are an example of the way the police can move under conditions of crisis.

The mass strike movement, which involved ten million workers, was actually “detonated” by police repression of student demonstrations, particularly by the brutal actions of the riot police, the para-military CRS. However, as one writer on the police, Tom Bowden, comments: “…While the police were prepared to brutally subdue one of their natural opponents, middle-class students, they were most unwilling to batter those whom they felt to be their worker brothers into submission…Accordingly, they tacitly let it be known that operations against workers could not only cause a grave crisis of confidence within their ranks but also the possibility of what would in effect be a police mutiny.” (Tom Bowden: Beyond the Limits of the Law.) In fact, leaders of one of the police unions stated publicly that they would not move against workers. The police were neutralised, or in the case of some sections, drawn behind the workers’ movement, and De Gaulle’s government was suspended in mid-air.

Another example was in Germany at the end of the First World War. In the crisis, the labour movement took over Berlin, appointing Emil Eichorn, a leader of the left-wing Independent Social Democrats, as police president. “Under his command,” writes one of Rosa Luxemburg’s biographers, “the police seemed to be turning into a revolutionary institution.” (Peter Netti, Rosa Luxemburg). It was the move of the reactionary central government under the right-wing Social Democrats Ebert and Noske to depose Eichorn which precipitated the “Spartakist” uprising in January 1919.

In Britain, too, the mass struggles of the working class between 1913 and 1919 gave rise to a struggle within the police for an independent trade union. The illegal Police and Prison Officers Union gradually forged links with the labour movement, and its leaders called for the democratisation of the police. There had been strikes of the Metropolitan Police over pay in 1872 and 1890. But the most significant strikes were in 1918 and 1919 during the post-war crisis. In 1918, almost all of the Metropolitan force of 19,000 came out in sympathy with their leaders who had been victimised. However, in 1919 a second strike, which led to battles with the army in Merseyside, was broken by the authorities. The government made concessions on pay and conditions, but purged the militants and completely smashed the union. The Police Federation was then established as a tame substitute for a union. At the same time, moves were made to undermine the powers of local watch committees and establish firm central control over local forces.

These examples should be enough to show that the police are not one, unchanging reactionary mass. The police, too, are affected by the crisis in society—and can be influenced by the working class when it moves into action. A correct policy towards the police on the part of the labour movement, however, is a vital factor.